Why Has France’s Islamist Separatism Bill Caused Such Controversy?

While the French far-right believes the bill could do more to fight extremism, the country’s Muslim population feels the legislation is unfairly targeting their community.

Protesters demonstrate against the so-called "anti-separatism" bill in Paris on Feb. 14.
Protesters demonstrate against the so-called "anti-separatism" bill in Paris on Feb. 14. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP

On Feb. 16, France’s National Assembly passed a controversial bill meant to protect the country against the dangers of what the government deems “Islamist separatism,” the latest French effort to reinforce the country’s traditional embrace of a secular identity. The bill passed handily, by a vote of 347 to 151, though the left abstained and the far-right felt it didn’t go far enough. Next month, the bill will head to the Senate, dominated by conservatives, where the bill’s passage is pretty much guaranteed.

Despite plenty of centrist support, including from President Emmanuel Macron, the bill has proved controversial, especially with French Muslims, who feel the legislation—which doesn’t name Islam or Muslims—unfairly targets them. An official in the French president’s office said the bill “is not against Islam. It is against people who in the name of a wrong or reconstructed vision of a religion behave in a way contrary to the republic.”

The French effort is part of a broader push in other European countries. In Switzerland, a right-wing political party is pushing a proposal to ban facial coverings such as niqabs or burqas; a referendum is set for March 7. France was the first country in Europe to ban full-face coverings in public in 2011; however, other countries in Europe still have partial or total burqa bans, including Norway, Bulgaria, Denmark, Austria, Latvia, and Belgium.

What does the French bill do?

Broadly speaking, the bill is meant to reinforce France’s lay tradition by discouraging behavior seeking to impose religious viewpoints in the public sphere.

First, the bill expands the “neutrality principle” forbidding not only civil servants but “all private contractors of public services” from sharing political opinions or even wearing physical representations of their religion, according to Al Jazeera. The bill also allows French authorities to temporarily shut down places of worship to stop preachers from spreading hatred. Lastly, French associations with specific religious ties that receive any “foreign funds will have to provide a strict accounting,” as reported by the New York Times. French associations that receive public funds will also have to demonstrate their commitment to the “principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, and respect of human dignity,” the Times added.

The bill would see any person spreading, with the intent to harm, personal information about public sector employees online fined 45,000 euros ($55,000) with the possibility of up to three years in jail. Any person who attempts to threaten or intimidate an elected official or public sector employee would be fined 75,000 euros ($91,000) and face up to five years in jail.

There are a few other noteworthy measures in the bill. Doctors will no longer be able to complete a so-called virginity check for patients before marriage—a common request among some Muslim families—and doctors still performing the checks would face a 15,000 euro ($18,000) fine and up to a year in jail.

If the bill isn’t explicitly aimed at France’s Muslims, as the government insists, why has it sparked so much concern in that community?

Macron, when he introduced the bill in October 2020, spoke explicitly about tackling “Islamist separatism,” which he described as the act of France’s Muslim community to supplant civil laws with its own laws and customs derived from religious practice, essentially creating two parallel societies. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Jean Castex said the bill “is not a text aimed against religions or against the Muslim religion in particular,” but observers have noted that the behaviors he is trying to curtail are all linked to Islamism.

Protesters took to the streets in Paris on Feb. 14, just before the bill’s passage in the National Assembly, arguing that it places a stigma on followers of France’s second largest religion. The legislation has rippled beyond France: Pakistani President Arif Alvi called the measure a “dangerous precedent” and urged the French government not to “entrench these attitudes into laws.”

What’s the impetus for this bill?

France, which has one of the largest Muslim populations of any country in Europe (outside Turkey), has grappled with the problems of integration and assimilation for decades, and Macron has made dealing with those social stresses one of the priorities of his presidency. In 2018, he told an interviewer that he wanted to “set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organized in France,” according to Reuters.

But the bill really gained momentum after the brutal beheading last October of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, who was killed by a young Russian of Chechen descent who said he was upset that Paty had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class. Later that month, a Tunisian national killed three people in a knife attack in Nice, in southern France.

At the February protest against the bill, one demonstrator told The Associated Press that “it’s not worth attacking a whole community because one person did a horrible act.”

What happens next?

The bill will now head to the Senate at the end of March, where it’s expected to be approved, and become law within months. Even so, for France’s far-right, the legislation does not go far enough. Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Rally party and a perennial presidential candidate, said the legislation is too weak in fighting what she calls “Islamist ideologies.”

Cailey Griffin is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @keenstoryteller