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ANALYSIS: What is actually contained in France’s new law against Islamic extremism?

A cacophony of complaints - some justified, most plain wrong or wilfully distorted - has been hurled at Emmanuel Macron’s proposed new law to defend French democracy from radical Islam, writes John Lichfield.

ANALYSIS: What is actually contained in France's new law against Islamic extremism?
President Emmanuel Macron admitted that France has created its own 'separatism'. Photo: AFP

On Wednesday, the draft law will finally be published and presented to the French government. Its title has changed. Some of its proposals have been modified. There is no specific reference to “Islamism” or Islam or any other religion.

Macron has been accused in recent weeks of lurching to the Right; of attacking Islam itself; of re-inventing French “secularism” until it becomes an attack on personal and religious freedoms, rather than a defence of them.

The attacks have come from some leaders in the Muslim world; from part of the French Left; and – in shrill and often ignorant terms – from some voices in the liberal media in the United States.

It is worth reciting a few facts. The proposed law has been developed in consultation with moderate Muslim leaders in France. It has been rejected in advance as too weak by the French right and Far Right.

Most of its proposals, with some amendments, have been approved by France’s fiercely independent, constitutional watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel. Macron has resisted (rightly) pressure from the French Right and the fiercely “secular” part of the Left for more draconian measures such as an outright ban on the Muslim headscarf in France.

Extreme ideas put forward in media interviews by the interior minister Gérald Darmanin (such as jail sentences for people who refuse to see a female doctor) have never been included in any version of the draft law.

OPINION The French interior minister is becoming a danger to Macron and France's reputation

The law was proposed two weeks before the murder of teacher Samuel Paty. Photo: AFP

It is also worth pointing out that the proposed law is NOT a response to the three Islamist terrorist attacks in France in October, including the beheading of the history teacher, Samuel Paty.

It is, in part, a response to the 30 or so other serious Islamist attacks in France in the last eight years.

Macron presented the outline – then called “a law against separatism” – in a speech in the far western suburbs of Paris on October 2nd, two weeks before Mr Paty’s horrific murder.

This brutal killing followed a mendacious and inflammatory campaign in radical Islamic social media against Mr Paty and his illustrated civics lesson on the rights and wrongs of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

It also followed a misleading campaign in parts of the Muslim world against Macron’s speech outlining his plan to resist the growing influence of extremist versions of Islam.

Much of the criticism, in both Muslim and US media, both before and after the October terrorist attacks, has ignored important elements of that speech.

READ ALSO How publishing Prophet Muhammed cartoons has become a quasi-religious act in France

Macron said in Les Mureaux on October 2nd: “We have created our own form of separatism…We have created districts where the promises of the Republic are no longer kept.”

He promised urgent new initiatives for the multi-racial French suburbs and to combat racial and religious discrimination. Without such action he said, the banlieues would remain a “fertile soil” in which extremist, Islamist propaganda would grow.

Regrettably, President Macron also seems to have forgotten, or indefinitely shelved, that element of his speech. Government officials speak of a “work in progress”. Hmm. It would be a great mistake if no mention is made of these promises when the draft law goes to the French cabinet tomorrow.

So what exactly IS in the new law, now called a law to “strengthen republican principles”?

Originally, the law contained a proposal to all but ban home-schooling for children over three. The government believes that some Muslim children, especially girls, are vanishing into radical schools which teach extremist interpretation of Islam but not much else.

School ID numbers, already given to most French children, are to be allotted to those taught at home and in wholly independent schools, outside the French public and licenced private education system. This was grossly misrepresented in part of the US media last month as an ID system for Muslim kids only.

 

Following advance criticism from the Constitutional Council, the school clauses have now been watered down. The freedom of parents to teach children at home will be maintained but under stricter regulation and inspection.

The draft law also bans the publication of information on-line which identifies people “with the intention of putting their safety or lives at risk”.

Local councils would be banned from agreeing to religious-based demands, such as female-only opening hours for swimming pools. There will be measures to widen the local (ie non-foreign) finances of places of worship.

All religious or other associations which receive public subsidies would have to sign a charter on respect for “Republican values” – recognising that “religions are not political movements”. There would be rules to try to prevent radical minorities from taking over places of worship.

The terms of the charter are being drawn up by the main French Muslim umbrella group, representing nine Islamic organisations, the Conseil français du culte musulman.

Why is any of this necessary?

A growing number of younger Muslims say they regard French state laws as inferior and contrary to the laws of Islam.

The vast majority of French Muslims – 70 percent according to one survey – are either non-practising or accept that the French secular state protects their religious freedom and that secular laws take precedence over religious law. They find themselves squeezed between radical interpretations of their faith and the undoubted Islamophobia of some French people and political parties.

In short, the proposed law defends France’s secular and democratic value. It also defends the right of French Muslims to worship free from foreign-subsidised radical propaganda.

The widespread mis-interpretation of Macron’s plan can be explained in several ways.

Interior minister Darmanin and others have muddled the original balanced approach with comments that have sounded more like an attack on Islam than an attack on Islamism.

France’s commitment to a “secular” state, in which all faiths are protected but none promoted, is often misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented abroad. But it is also exploited and distorted by some French pundits and politicians – not just on the far right – to disguise their Islamophobia.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

At its core, French secularism is little different from the British or American devotion (pre-Trump and Johnson at any rate ) to tolerance, democracy and the rule of law.

The struggle against Islamist intolerance is not just a French struggle. Many foreigners understand that. Many Muslims understand that, in France and elsewhere.

But Macron’s defence of France and his own approach would be infinitely strengthened if he recalled his own excellent October 2nd speech.

The President spoke of combating radical Islam. He also said that extremism and “the soil in which it grows” must be “addressed in parallel …over years and years.”

We will have the law to combat radicalism tomorrow. Where are the proposals to combat discrimination and to help the struggling inner suburbs? 

Member comments

  1. Let’s see what the law will be, and what it’s actual effect/impact will be. I have my doubts on if we will actually see improvements. In the 30 attacks in France cited that partly lead to this law, several of the biggest ones actually originated in Belgium or had ties to Belgium. The Charlie Hebdo 2015 terrorists got their weapons in Brussels, the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people was planned by a terrorist cell in Belgium, and the Thalys attacker boarded the train with his weapons in Belgium. The other biggest attack, in Nice that killed 85 people, was by a Tunisian who was legally living in France, who had already been reported to police 5 times. I’m concerned that lawmakers are ignoring real security measures, like technology infrastructure that allows better cross-border policing cooperation. I fear that the cultural debate and focus on secularism value is distracting from and ignoring real security needs, which to my knowledge are still unresolved and at risk.

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DISCOVER FRANCE

Inside Brégançon: The French presidential Riviera holiday home

If you're expecting to see French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris over the summer you're likely to be disappointed - he and his wife Brigitte are at Brégançon, the official Riviera 'holiday home' of the presidents of France.

Inside Brégançon: The French presidential Riviera holiday home

The Fort of Brégançon, which stands on a rock 30 metres above the sea, has been offering privacy and sunshine to French presidents for decades, although its history goes back much further than that.

The fort is perched on a tiny island – just 4.5km long – connected to the French mainland by a causeway and has been a strategic site since the 6th century, acting as a seigneurial residence, a Crown estate property and a military site equipped with artillery including 23 cannons under Napoleon Bonaparte.

It was Charles de Gaulle who gave it the status of official presidential residence in 1968 and it’s usually used for presidential holidays – similar to Camp David in the USA and Chequers in the UK.

It has since been transformed into a pleasant residence while maintaining what remained of the ancient fortress, giving presidents the opportunity to take advantage of the sunshine of the Riviera.

French presidents have their main residence and offices in the Elysée Palace, the beautiful 18th century residence in the heart of Paris. In addition to Brégançon, presidents also have the use of La Lanterne, a former hunting lodge in the grounds of Versailles, and although they can’t stay in the sumptuous Palace of Versailles they do sometimes hold events and meeting with foreign dignitaries there.

It’s Brégançon’s offshore location that was the key for De Gaulle, who considered it the only place in the south of France secure enough to receive foreign heads of state, particularly from Mediterranean countries in the geopolitical context of decolonisation. 

While it remains secure, it is these days within long-lens range for photographers, as several presidents have discovered. 

But through the years of the Fifth Republic, French presidents have had quite varying attitudes to this undoubted perk of the job.

De Gaulle’s successor Georges Pompidou seemed to love it and spent his weekends in the Fort both in summers and winters. He opened its doors to the media, letting himself be photographed with his spouse in more relaxed clothing and playing pétanque with his bodyguards.

Georges Pompidou and his wife Claude in August 1969 pose in the gardens during their summer holiday. Photo by AFP

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who regularly stayed there with his family, brought the national spotlight on the Fort by letting paparazzi venture around the residence, snapping pictures of him in swimsuit and tennis shoes, but also installing CCTV inside the residence.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing poses for photos with his wife Anne-Aymone in 1979. Photo by AFP

When socialist François Mitterrand won the election, he declared: “the Republic doesn’t need a secondary residence.”

He limited his visits to work meeting – the SNCF strikers in 1987 and two heads of state the Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl – although he took no steps to sell off Brégancon. 

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was hosted by François Mitterand in August 1985. Photo by PIERRE CIOT / AFP

His successor Jacques Chirac particularly appreciated the fort because of its location in the Var département where he lived as a child.

With his spouse Bernadette, they regularly attend mass at the local church and greeted residents and tourists. In 2004, the President received Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to appease tensions. The Brégançon presidential desk was photographed for the first time.

Jacques Chirac and Brigitte leaving the local church in May 1999 Photo by VANINA LUCCHESI / AFP

During his presidency Nicolas Sarkozy received foreign politicians including Condoleezza Rice, but also took some time to exercise. The pictures of him jogging around the Fort were described as creating a new style of presidential communication. Later, he was photographed on the beach with first lady Carla Bruni during her pregnancy.

Nicolas Sarkozy jogging, followed by his bodyguards on bikes. Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP

François Hollande, who branded himself as a “normal president” felt no particular attachment to the Fort and opened the site to the public for visits, although he did host some work meetings there.

A rather formal looking Francois Hollande meets with his Prime Minister Manuel Valls at Brégançon. Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS / POOL / AFP

Since being elected in 2017 Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron seem to have enjoyed the Fort, retreating there during the summers and being photographed on the beach or having fun on jet-skis – they also installed a swimming pool which cost €34,000.

Brigitte Macron owns a property in the northern French seaside resort of Le Touquet, which the couple use for family time. But Emmanuel Macron has also used the Fort for work, hosting British Prime Minister Theresa May in August 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2019, on the eve of the G7 in Biarritz, and Chancellor Angela Merkel in summer 2020. 

Emmanuel Macron welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Bregancon in August 2020. Photo by Christophe SIMON / POOL / AFP

This year he declared that he would be having a “pause studieuse” at Brégançon and use the summer to think about how to tackle some of France’s most pressings issues.

With a cost of living crisis, war in Europe and political turmoil at home, let’s hope that his beach reading bears fruit.

By Julie Edde

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