Paris, France – In a divisive speech last Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron outlined proposals on how to challenge what he called “Islamist separatism”.
“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country,” Macron said during a nearly two hour speech in the northwest Paris suburb of Les Mureaux.
Muslims across the world responded with anger, with many viewing the speech, which was centred around protecting the ideal of French secularism, as an attempt to pander to the far right.
The proposal, which will be formally presented as a bill in December, expands on a 1905 law that officially separated religion from the state.
It would, among other things, let the state monitor international funding coming into French mosques, limit homeschooling in order to prevent Muslim schools run by what Macron called “religious extremists”, and create a special certificate programme for French imams.
“Behind this law, there is a real stigmatisation,” Nagib Azergui, founder of the Union of French Muslim Democrats political party, told Al Jazeera. “[The proposal] is making a direct link between Muslims, terrorism and radicalisation.”
Azergui said he feared the consequences of that could be an increase in Islamophobia throughout the country.
“We’re in a state of vigilance where people are calling the police and saying my neighbour who has a beard or wears a headscarf is a threat.”
France’s Interior Ministry recorded 154 Islamophobic incidents in 2019, a 54-percent increase from 2019.
The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), which uses a different method of calculation, said it recorded approximately 2,000 instances of Islamophobia in the same year.
In response to Macron’s speech, 100 prominent French Muslims signed an open letter calling on the government to stop stigmatising Muslims, especially women and working-class Muslims.
“Stop stigmatising Muslim women, whether they wear a headscarf or not, whose clothing choices have become a subject of national debate,” they said. “Stop the escalation of empty political and media debates. Stop the indictment of any speaker, Muslim or not, who does not subscribe to the racist speeches that have become omnipresent on our screens.”
The speech came amid renewed national debate over the hijab.
Wearing the hijab – a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion – is banned in French schools and for public servants at their workplace.
Last month, a member of French President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LREM) party walked out of a National Assembly hearing, saying the presence of a veiled student went against the country’s secular values – a stunt that renewed debate over the hijab.
Days earlier, a social media storm erupted when a French journalist tried to draw a connection between a food video by a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. French network BFMTV tweeted a video of Imane Boune, a 21-year-old food blogger, giving cooking tips to university students on a budget. Replying to the post, Judith Waintraub, from right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro Magazine, commented: “11 septembre”.
In his Friday speech, mocked by some on social media as a “sermon” because it was given on the Muslim holy day, Macron did acknowledge some government failures when it came to its treatment of immigrant populations.
“We built our own separatism ourselves,” Macron said. “For too long, the authorities had amassed largely immigrant populations in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods with little access to jobs or public transportation.”
That’s why, he said, “we see children of the Republic, sometimes from elsewhere, children or grandchildren of citizens from immigrant background and from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa revisiting their identity through a post-colonial discourse.”
“But this,” he insisted, “was a form of self-hatred that the Republic should work against.”
In an editorial for Le Monde, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of Paris’s Grand Mosque, wrote that the government could only blame itself for abandoning such populations.
“One should not be surprised by the result,” Hafiz said. “In the long run, certain populations become autonomous, freeing themselves from the laws of the Republic to live according to standards that they have concocted for themselves or that extremist and communalist circles have shaped for them. Indeed, it is hard to wake up when, for years on end, the dust has been swept under the carpet.”
Macron’s use of the term “Islamist separatism” was also worrying, he added.
“The question of ‘separatism’ does not concern all Muslims in any way. Far from it!” he wrote.
“I would like to point out, with all due respect, to those looking to establish a parallel between Islam and Islamism, to those who suggest that Islam is Islamism, and vice versa, that there is indeed a distinction to be made between the Muslim religion and the Islamist ideology.”
But some saw in Macron’s speech a positive step forward in creating a “French Islam”.
Hakim El Karoui, a French consultant who has written about the role of Islam in France, told Al Jazeera he thought the speech was a positive step for French Muslims.
“It was a speech against Islamism, but it was pro-Islam,” El Karoui said.
A longtime friend of Macron’s, El Karoui is the author of two reports – The Islamist Factory and A French Islam Is Possible.
Many of the ideas presented in his research, including monitoring mosques’ financing from abroad and creating a local programme for training imams in France, became key parts of Macron’s proposal.