France passes anti-radicalism bill that worries Muslims

·4 min read

PARIS — Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday a bill that would strengthen oversight of mosques, schools and sports clubs to safeguard France from radical Islamists and ensure respect for French values — one of President Emmanuel Macron's landmark projects.

The vote in the lower house was the first critical hurdle for the legislation that has been long in the making after two weeks of intense debate. The bill passed 347 to 151 with 65 abstentions.

The wide-ranging bill that covers most aspects of French life has been hotly contested by some Muslims, lawmakers and others who fear the state is intruding on essential freedoms and pointing a finger at Islam, the nation's No. 2 religion. But it breezed through a chamber in which Macron's centrist party has a majority.

The legislation gained added urgency after a teacher was beheaded in October followed by a deadly attack on a basilica in Nice. The bill known as Art. 18 is known as the ‘’Paty law," named after Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded outside his school west of Paris. The legislation makes it a crime to endanger the life of a person by providing details of their private life and location. Paty was slain after information about his school was posted in a video.

The bill bolsters other French efforts to fight extremism, mainly security-based.

Detractors say the measures are already covered in current laws and voice suspicions the bill has a hidden agenda by a government looking to entice right-wing voters ahead of presidential elections next year.

Just days before Tuesday's vote, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin - the bill's main sponsor - accused far-right leader Marine le Pen during nationally televised debate of being “soft" on radical Islam and that she needed to take vitamins.

The remark intended to underscore that the ruling party is tougher than the far-right in tackling radical Islamists. But Le Pen criticizes the bill as too weak and has offered what she called her own, tougher counter-proposal. Le Pen, who has declared her candidacy for the 2022 election, lost in the 2017 runoff against Macron.

The bill — which mentions neither Muslims nor Islam by name — is backed by those who see the need to contain what the government says is an encroaching fundamentalism subverting French values, notably the nation's foundational value of secularism and gender equality.

The planned law “supporting respect for the principles of the Republic” is dubbed the "separatism" bill, a term used by Macron to refer to radicals who would create a “counter society” in France.

Top representatives of all religions were consulted as the text was being written. The government's leading Muslim conduit, the French Council for the Muslim Faith, gave its backing.

Ghaleb Bencheikh, head of the Foundation for Islam of France, a secular body seeking a progressive Islam, said in a recent interview that the planned law was “unjust but necessary” to fight radicalization.

Among other things, the 51-article bill would ban virginity certificates and crack down on polygamy and forced marriage, practices not formally attached to a religion. Critics say these provisions are already covered in existing laws.

Among key measures is ensuring that children attend regular school starting at age three, a way to target home schools where ideology is taught. Other measures include training all public employees in secularism. Anyone who threatens a public employee risks a prison sentence. In another reference to Paty, the slain teacher, the bill obligates the bosses of a public employee who has been threatened to take action if the the employee agrees.

The bill introduces mechanisms to guarantee that mosques and associations that run them are not under the sway of foreign interests or homegrown Salafists with a rigorous interpretation of Islam.

Associations are to sign a charter of respect for French values and pay back state funds if they cross the line.

To accommodate changes, the bill adjusts France's 1905 law guaranteeing separation of church and state.

Some Muslims said the sensed a climate of suspicion.

“There's confusion ... A Muslim is a Muslim and that's all,” said Bahri Ayari, a taxi driver, after worshipping at mid-day prayers at the Grand Mosque of Paris. “We talk about radicals, about I don't know what. A Muslim is a Muslim and that's all.” As for convicted radicals, he said, their crimes "get put on the back of Islam. That's not what a Muslim is.”

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Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.

Elaine Ganley, The Associated Press