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POLITICS

Mosque closures: What powers does the French government have?

According to the Interior Ministry, a total 21 operational places of worship are currently closed in France while a further six are currently under investigation. We look at the powers the French government has to close down religious institutions.

The outside of Al Madina al Mounawara mosque in Cannes, which has been closed down on the orders of the French Interior Minister
Al Madina al Mounawara mosque in Cannes. Photo: Valery Hache / AFP

On Wednesday, a mosque in Cannes was closed on the orders of Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin because, he said, of anti-Semitic remarks made there and because it was also guilty of supporting CCIF and BarakaCity, two associations that the government dissolved at the end of last year for spreading “Islamist” propaganda.

READ ALSO French minster orders closure of Cannes mosque over anti-Semitic remarks

The closure in Cannes comes two weeks after authorities provisionally closed a mosque in the northern area of Oise because of what they said was the radical nature of its imam’s preaching, the latest in a string of closures.

Can the government close places of worship?

France is a secular state and the government has no religion. Public officials are barred from even wearing clothing or jewellery that indicates their faith – a long-standing policy that has caused no small amount of friction from time to time. 

But it does have the power to close churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship in certain circumstances.

As with any building, the government can step in if a place of worship is structurally unsound and dangerous, while religious organisations are obliged to follow rules around employment, health and safety and – if serving food or drink to the public – hygiene.

Likewise, religious groups enjoy no special treatment when it comes to criminal investigation – a Catholic archbishop who said that priests should not inform police about sexual abuse if they hear it in confession was recently summoned for a meeting with Darmanin and reminded that “Nothing is above the laws of the Republic”.

Mosques

The mosque closures, however, are being done under a more recent law.

The loi SILT (Sécurité Intérieure et Lutte contre le Terrorisme), brought in to combat fundamentalist Islamism, came into force in 2017 and allows the government to close places of worship for up to six months. 

The law states that “for the sole purpose of preventing the commission of acts of terrorism, the representative of the State in the department, or in Paris the Police Préfet, may pronounce the closure of places of worship in which the remarks that are held, the ideas or theories that are disseminated or the activities that take place provoke violence, hatred or discrimination, provoke the commission of acts of terrorism or glorify such acts.” 

France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP

The duration of the closure “must be proportionate to the circumstances that motivated it and may not exceed six months.”

The State must give its approval before the place of worship can reopen. Closures, though individually limited to six months, can be renewed.

For this, a new religious association must take over the management of the place. Control measures can also be put in place, such as the installation of surveillance cameras to film services and preaching.

If necessary religious leaders at the venue may be expelled. 

How often is this power used?

Its use seems to be increasing. 

In December 2020, Darmanin placed 76 mosques under investigation as part of what he described at the time as a “massive and unprecedented action against separatism”.

There have also been separate actions, such as the closure of the mosque in Pantin, north of Paris, after mosque officials shared videos relating to the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. The mosque has since reopened with a new leadership team.

The Macron government has passed a sweeping bill aimed at preventing ‘separatism’. Developed in consultation with Muslim leaders in France it contains a raft of measures including wider provision for local funding of places of worship and a charter of ‘republican values’ for all groups which receive public subsidies.

ANALYSIS What is in Macron’s ‘anti-separatism’ law?

Going alongside the bill, Darmanin’s actions are aimed at mosques where radical preaching has been reported.

How do locals react to the closures?

In the case of the mosque in Cannes, which is to remain closed for at least two months, so far there has been silence.

The rector of the mosque, Mustapha Dali , has not yet reacted to this closure. But, Following the terror attack in Nice in July 2016, he condemned “barbaric fanaticism” in a publication on social networks. 

Cannes town hall said in a press release: “This decision comes after careful research work by the State services and multiple reports made directly by the municipality of Cannes since 2015.”

It went on: “We know that the vast majority of Muslims who frequent this very old mosque do not share its drift; some had also alerted us.

“It is therefore up to the emergence of new leaders respectful of the French Republic and the country so that the place of worship can then reopen”.

In the case of the Pantin mosque, several members of the community had reported becoming alarmed by the preaching, even before the video was shared.

It has since reopened without its former director and work is ongoing on a €1 million building project.

“It’s a good thing that the mosque can reopen. The director made an inexcusable mistake in sharing this video. But punishing all the worshippers was unfair,” said the Socialist local mayor Bertrand Kern.

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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