Loi Separatisme: French society sharply divided over controversial law passed by National Assembly

Is this the CAA moment for France?

Politics

February 18, 2021

/ By / Paris

Loi Separatisme: French society sharply divided over controversial law passed by National Assembly

The bill will now be discussed by the Senate & is expected to pass without any problem since President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party enjoys a comfortable majority there

Though France has always been a cacophonic democracy, a bit like India of yesteryears, few laws have left the country so bitterly divided as Loi Separatisme that sailed through the lower house of French Parliament on Tuesday night.

With a comfortable majority, 351 votings for, 151 against and 65 absentees, Loi Separatisme, one of the most controversial laws to have been proposed by the French government in years was passed by the Assemblée Nationale in a vote on Tuesday (February 16th) night.

The bill will now be discussed by the Senate, where again it is expected to pass without any problem since President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party enjoys a comfortable majority there as well.

Members of the Assemblée Nationale debated over the text for about 135 hours over the last two weeks, but for months before that, the bill has been a hot and extremely divisive subject not just on the streets but also in the French media, universities and of course the political ecosystem.

On paper, the law is meant to strengthen the values of the French Republic and to ensure better integration of millions of immigrants who have made France their home. One of its stated objectives is to combat Islamic separatism and tackle hate speech, notably online. It is also meant to better regulate religious associations, especially those that receive public funding. It also bans homeschooling, except under very strict conditions.

Introducing the bill in the Parliament, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, one of the most controversial ministers in the government of Emmanuel Macron said, “Our country is sick with separatism, above all Islamic separatism that has become gangrenous for the French society. One should know the name of the illness and one has to find the medicines needed.”

For the opposition, notably the left parties, the law is blatantly anti-Islam and serves to stigmatise and further exclude the large Muslim population of France. “The government is stigmatising the Muslims,” responded Jean Luc Melonchon, leader of extreme-left party La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France).

Divisive law, not cohesive

Even though it was introduced in the Parliament in January, the Loi Separatisme had already created or at least put under the spotlight the deep divisions running through the French society. It has been criticised sharply for being anti-Islam and impacting every single liberty guaranteed by the French Constitution. Even the Conseil d’Etat, which advises the government on legal issues and is also the Supreme Court for administrative justice, admitted that the measures of the bill impacted practically all public rights and freedoms. It agreed with the Defenseur des Droits, the rights ombudsman, that vis a vis regulation of religious associations, the bill includes ‘concepts subject to conflicting interpretations’ and uncertainties that could introduce serious risks of arbitrary decisions. The rights ombudsman also noted that the bill was part of an overall reinforcement of control of social order. It also aims to curb the right to organise public demonstrations, unless permitted by the police.

Critics say that increasingly the government has been denying permission for holding protests, forcing some of the organisations to stage civil disobedience protests without any permission. This is leading to repression of citizens’ rights, they say. Indeed, last October, l’Observatoire des libertés associatives, a coalition of associations, expressed alarm over repression of associations carried out by the government. It says that as the new law curbs payment of any public funds to any association on a number of extremely subjective issues can easily be used to stifle associations that displease the government.

In a public letter, several hundred eminent persons of France including research scholars, senior academicians, lawyers, human rights activists and of course politicians say that the law will be counterproductive and weaken Republican values. “Instead of contributing to national security and cohesion, this law will destabilise all the associations that are very essential in dealing with the challenges that we currently face and for our democracy,” they said in a long letter listing their key objections to the proposed law.

“This text is really very repressive and very regressive on the issue of liberties. It contains elements impacting freedom of press, freedom of association, the neutrality of public services, homeschooling, civil rights like marriage and social rights. It covers a very large area and touches large number of existing rules or laws and systematically reduces guarantees of a number of liberties,” says Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, professor of public law at university of Paris Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense. Hennete Vauchez is a specialist in fundamental liberties laws.

For its part, Amnesty International says that the proposed law threatens freedom of association and can have dissuasive effects on defenders of human rights and civil society organisations. “The dissolution of an organisation is an extreme measure which cannot be justified except under very specific and limited circumstances,” says Amnesty, adding that the law allows the government to dissolve organisations for vague reasons such as actions impacting ‘human dignity or leading to psychological or physical pressures on the other’.

Amnesty pointed at the dissolution of the anti-Islamophobic organization, Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF), which the French Interieur Ministry had dissolved without giving any credible reasons. It said that the French authorities have not furnished any proof to justify the dissolution of this organisation and there was nothing to show that CCIF presented a real and imminent danger to national security or law and order.

Islam in crosshair

Both the government as well as the opponents of the Loi Separatisme say that the law’s key target is Islam. The big difference lies in their perceptions of both the situation of Islam in France as well as the impact, direct or indirect and desired or unintended, that the law will have on France’s 8 million or so Muslims, its largest minority and the one with which the French government has had the worst relationship.

While Darmanin and his government colleagues, as well as many of the rightwing politicians, say that the law targets only radical and violent Islam, human rights activists and scholars say that the law will hurt the ordinary Muslims more than anyone else and push them even further away from the French mainstream society, thus defeating the original and declared intent of enhancing national security and cohesiveness of the French society and its Republican values.

France indeed has had a long and tenuous relationship with its Muslim population, most of whom are at least second-generation immigrants and who were born and have been brought up in France. Many of them have been victims of discriminations all through – from school to the job market and the everyday life. For instance, jobless rates in Muslim-dominated communities are double or even triple the national averages, Muslims, especially young Muslims are far more likely to be checked for identity, often in very violent and insulting manner by an iron-hand police force, and the number of Muslims in French prisons far outstrips their proportion in the population.

Amnesty International had sounded the alarm on widespread discrimination against Muslims way back in 2012 and incidentally a year before the murderous attack on the office of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 13 journalists, among others. French Muslims are more and more often victims of discriminations said the report that dealt with the situation across Europe. “The stereotypes linked to Muslim religious and cultural practices have led to the appearance of discriminations in the job market or the schools, for people dressed in costumes commonly linked to Islam,” Amnesty had said in the report, produced after research lasting four years. Amnesty said that to justify the discriminations, France used a very specific concept of secularism. “In the name of this principle, meant to ensure the neutrality of the State and equality of rights of all religions, they limit freedom of expression of individuals by applying on them the rules that should only concern the State and its agents. It is totally absurd. Public spaces belong to all of us,” Amnesty had said in 2012.

Many activists blame these discriminatory practices for the disenchantment of the young French Muslims with the country of their birth and were clearly responsible for a large number of them getting swayed by Islamic jihadist propaganda and joining the ISIS during its heyday. The numerous terror attacks that France has suffered in the past decade could partly be blamed on this radicalisation of young Muslims mainly due to their feeling of exclusion from the mainstream society.

The Loi Separatisme is bound to further deepen the chism in the French society, notably between the State and its Muslim citizens, and push the Muslims, especially those particularly vulnerable to incitement by extremists, deeper into the arms of the real enemies of the French state. President Emmanuel Macron would do well to consider the long-term implications of this before signing on the law once it passes the Senate.

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