In a major shot-in-the-arm for French President Emmanuel Macron, who had vowed to act against rising extremism in the country, the French legislators in the lower house of the parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly supported in favour of a bill that would strengthen the supervision of mosques, schools and sports clubs as a measure to guard against radical Islam and to ensure respect for French values.
The voting in the lower house was the first impediment for the bill after two weeks of intense debate that went into its formulation. The bill was passed with an overwhelming majority of 347 as opposed to 151, with 65 abstentions.
The draft bill was introduced by President Macron last year after a series of attacks by radical Islamists convulsed the country. Titled “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic,” the legislation intends to protect French values, including secularism and harmony.
The bill reportedly covers broad aspects of French life that have been fiercely contested by some purist Muslims, legislators and others who are fearful of state’s intrusion on essential freedoms and its cornering of the country’s number 2 religion—Islam. However, the bill whizzed through the lower house of the parliament, where President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party enjoys a majority, without facing any sizeable resistance.
The legislation was passed with an urgency, especially in the aftermath of the horrifying beheading of a teacher in October followed by a lethal attack on a basilica in Nice. The bill, known as Art. 18 is named as “Paty Law” after the slain teacher Samuel Paty, who was decapitated outside his school west of Paris for reproducing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad printed in the weekly satire magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’.
The bill will empower law enforcement officials to swiftly arrest a person for spreading hate online. The bill will enable agencies to charge a person with online hate speech law, which will be punishable by up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros. The bill will ban the wearing of hijab in private and public offices. It is notable here that the bill mentions neither Muslims nor Islam by name.
As per the legislation, it is criminal to endanger the life of a fellow citizen by providing details of their whereabouts and their private life. Paty was killed after information about was made available through a video. The supporters of the bill have touted the legislation as a solution to counter the growing fundamentalism in the country that has subverted the French values, most notably the foundational French values of secularism and gender equality.
The bill is referred to as “separatism” bill, a term used by Macron to characterise radicals who are seeking to create a parallel society in France. According to people privy to the details of the bill, top representatives of all religions, including the government’s leading Muslim conduit, the French Council for the Muslim Faith, also extended their support to the legislation.
The measures entailed in the Bill included banning virginity certificates, abolishing polygamy and putting an end to forced marriages, practices that are not formally tied to faith. Other important measures include ensuring that children attend regular school starting at the age of three, a means to target religious seminaries where children are usually brainwashed right from their tender age. Besides, training all public employees in secularism is also included in the provisions of the bill.
In yet another reference to the murdered French teacher Samuel Paty, the bill also proposes prison sentence to those who threaten a public employee. The bill makes it obligatory for the bosses of the public employee who has been threatened to take action if the employee agrees.
Furthermore, the bill introduces a mechanism to ensure that mosques and associations that run them are not operated under the influence of foreign entities or homegrown radical Islamists with an uncompromising interpretation of Islam. Associations are mandated to sign a charter of respect for French values and are liable to pay fines and penalties if they are found crossing the line.
While many supported the bill, some naysayers claim existing laws are enough to counter radicalisation
The bill serves to reinforce the French efforts to tackle Islamic extremism, especially security-based. The naysayers, however, lament that the measures introduced in the bill are already covered in the existent laws and insinuate that the bill might have a hidden agenda by a government that is trying to woo the right-wing voters ahead of the presidential elections that are slated to take place next year.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who has been the main sponsor of the bill, accused the opposition leader Marine Le Pen of being “soft” on radical Islam and said that she needed to take vitamins. The comment was made to highlight that the ruling party was more severe than the opposition parties in dealing with radical Islamists. However, Pen slammed the bill as too weak and offered what she called her own, tougher counter-proposal.
The head of the Foundation for Islam of France, Ghaleb Bencheikh, voiced support for the bill, stating that though the bill was unjust, it was necessary to fight the menace of radicalisation.