French minister’s comments on ‘separatism law’ spark backlash

Under new bill, people who refuse treatment from a doctor of the opposite sex could face a five-year jail sentence and a 75,000-euro fine.

Darmanin is taking a leading role in the country's security affairs following two deadly attacks [Yoan Valat/Pool/EPA] (EPA)

On October 2, French President Emmanuel Macron made a keenly awaited speech laying out plans to address what he called “Islamist separatism”.

He announced several measures that will form a bill and go to parliament, such as improving the oversight of mosque financing, and scrutinising schools and associations serving religious communities.

During the speech, he said Islam was a religion “in crisis” globally – a statement which is now among the reasons why Muslims across the world are protesting against him.

On Sunday, his interior minister Gerald Darmanin, in an interview with the Lille-based newspaper La Voix du Nord, said France was “waging a war against radical Islam” as he gave further details of the bill.

In comments that have angered activists and France’s Muslim minority, the largest in Europe, Darmanin said that anyone seeking medical care “who refuses to be treated by a woman” could face up to five years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros.

Darmanin said the measures would apply to anyone “putting pressure on public officials” as well as “anyone refusing a teacher’s lessons”.

While vague, the details provoked a backlash on social media, with many arguing against prison sentences and large fines for refusing a doctor or nurse of the opposite sex.

Translation: In @lavoixdunord, Gérald Darmanin announced that committing the offence of separatism will be punishable by 5 years in prison for those who refuse to be treated by a doctor of another gender. However, a patient’s freedom to choose their doctor is enshrined in the code of medical ethics (art 6).

Journalist Sihame Assbague responded to the tweet with an imagined future conversation, in which people were comparing the sentences they were given after requesting that they be treated by, for example, a female gynaecologist or male proctologist.

Translation: – What are you in for? – Long story, forget it … and you? – I insisted it be a woman gynaecologist who examined me … – Crazy. It’s like my cousin, he got 2 years because he asked for a male proctologist. – … – … 

Philippe Marliere, professor of French and European politics at University College London tweeted: “Macron’s France is fast becoming a nasty authoritarian regime.”

The government will present the “separatism law” bill in December in an attempt to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.

Elsewhere, it plans to limit homeschooling in order to prevent Muslim schools run by what Macron called “religious extremists”, and create a special certificate programme for French imams.

Darmanin’s latest announcement appeared to strengthen those measures. In his interview, he said he had spoken about the additions with Macron during a security meeting last Friday.

Rim Sarah Alouane, a French academic researching religious freedom, human rights and civil liberties in France, said: “Needless to say that there are women (regardless of their belief, religion, philosophy etc) who prefer being treated by a woman for many reasons. Also, the right to freely choose your doctor is guaranteed by the medical code of ethics.

“There is no way this law can be fully deemed constitutional, but hey, nowadays, you never know.”

Darmanin has aroused controversy as he takes a leading role in the country’s security affairs following two deadly attacks.

In an interview with BFMTV after teacher Samuel Paty was killed, he said he was “shocked” to see halal and kosher food aisles in supermarkets, which he believed contributed to “separatism” in France, comments that were instantly mocked on social media.

At the time of publishing, the French interior ministry had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Paty was beheaded on October 16 in broad daylight near his school in a Paris suburb after having shown his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

His death led to an outpouring of grief and saw top officials renew their support for the right to show the images, which are deeply offensive to Muslims as they often link Islam and “terrorism”.

A Tunisian man is suspected of killing three people in a Nice church on Thursday.

Darmanin told BFMTV that he will travel to Tunisia and Algeria this week to discuss security measures with his counterparts.

Muslims across the world have condemned the deadly attacks, including leaders of Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In France, Muslims are increasingly concerned that they will be victims of “collective punishment” as the government responds to the attacks.

Some are also upset by the renewed public support for the right to show the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad – a deeply revered figure in Islam, some of which have been projected onto French government buildings in the wake of Paty’s death.

Rebecca Rosman contributed to this report from Paris.