France’s controversial ‘separatism’ bill: Seven things to know

Having debated the bill, French politicians will vote on it this week before it heads to the Senate.

A woman holds a placard reading 'enough of Islamophobia' as protesters demonstrate against the 'anti-separatism' bill, in Paris on February 14, 2021 [Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP]

Paris, France – During a high-profile speech on secularism and Islam last October, French President Emmanuel Macron said that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, and there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”.

Two months later, the French government unveiled draft legislation in order to combat what it terms “Islamist separatism” and an ideology it describes as “the enemy of the Republic”.

Critics say the so-called “separatism law” is discriminatory and targets France’s 5.7 million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe.

Its detractors include the 100 imams, 50 teachers in Islamic sciences and 50 presidents of associations in France who signed an open letter against the “unacceptable” charter on February 10.

This month, French MPs staged two weeks of heated debates in the National Assembly, discussing some 1,700 proposed amendments to the bill’s 51 articles.

Tensions over the legislation were highlighted by the unusually large number of amendments, which came from parties across France’s political spectrum.

While France’s left lambasted an attack on civil liberties, the right criticised the government for failing to overtly tackle “Islamist extremism”, which is not mentioned in the text.

With debates in the lower house now completed and 313 amendments accepted, a vote will take place on Tuesday and the bill is expected to receive the green light at the Senate, before passing into law within months.

Here are some key measures the legislation is set to introduce:

Hate speech and ‘separatism’

A new offence for online hate speech will make it possible to quickly detain a person who spreads personal information about public sector employees on social media with the intent to harm them, and will be punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros ($55,000).

The blocking or delisting of websites promoting hate speech will also be made easier and legal proceedings accelerated.

Under a so-called “separatism” offence, anyone found threatening, violating or intimidating an elected official or public sector employee will also face up to five years imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 euros ($91,000).

If the offence is committed by a foreigner, they could be banned from French territory.

Controlling organisations

Any association in France that receives public funding will have to sign a “republican contract of engagement” which, if breached, can result in the removal of that funding.

If the subsidy has already been granted, it must be reimbursed, and within a maximum period of six months.

The grounds for dissolving an association are also no longer limited to court orders – they would be extended to include administrative decisions.

Macron has branded Islam a ‘religion in crisis’ [File: Ludovic Marin/Pool via Reuters]

Homeschooling and sport

Aimed at ending so-called clandestine schools with their own agenda, all homeschooling will need to be authorised by the state rather than be self-declared, starting from the 2024/2025 school year.

This will affect an estimated 62,000 home-schooled children in France, though exemptions include health and disability reasons, as well as geographic distance from school.

The approval of sports associations and structures, meanwhile, considered a breeding ground for “separatism”, would be entrusted to state representatives and no longer to national federations.

Virginity certificates, polygamy, forced marriage

Doctors will be fined 15,000 euros ($18,000) and face a prison sentence of up to one year for providing virginity certificates and rules will be put in place against polygamy. Any immigrants practising it, for instance, would not be issued a residence permit.

Suspected forced marriages could also be referred to a prosecutor and laws would be introduced to guarantee gender equality in inheritance.

Foreign funding of religious organisations

Stricter financial controls would be put in place on foreign money sent to religious organisations in France, and so-called “anti-putsch” rules for religious associations are designed to allow the government to prevent takeovers by “extremists”.

Those that receive foreign financing will need to declare any income of more than 10,000 euros ($12,000) from abroad and to publish annual accounts that the government can access.

France’s 5.7-million Muslim community is the largest in Europe [File: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP]

Policing places of worship

Greater punishments for offences committed in connection with religious communities include increasing penalties and allowing authorities to close any places of worship for up to two months in order to stop hate preachers.

Individuals convicted of terrorism would also be banned from leading a religious association for 10 years.

Extending the ban on religious symbols

The bill extends what is known in France as the “neutrality principle”, which prohibits civil servants from wearing religious symbols like the Muslim hijab and voicing political views, beyond public sector employees to all private contractors of public services such as those working for transport companies.

Source: Al Jazeera