Years in the making, yesterday the French Government finally presented its new, ambitious and controversial law against “Islamist Separatism”. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t quite read as a slide into the fascist dystopia of some fevered Twitter timeline imaginations.
It is fair to say the new law has had something of a makeover — perhaps owing to the unexpected international backlash from the international press and certain heads of state. No longer the ‘law against separatism’, the bill has rebranded as the law to ‘Strengthen Republican Principles.’ Perhaps it’s also telling the law was presented by Prime Minister Jean Castex — who recently endeared himself online for losing the specs he was already wearing — rather than the harder-line Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin.
The proposed law is a complex and comprehensive piece of legislation containing 54 articles and a wide range of provisions from measures applying to online hate speech and to the ending forced marriage and increased transparency for overseas religious funding.
Although the bill names no faith, Castex made it clear that the law is not against Islam or Muslims, but rather a “law of emancipation” from the grip of religious fundamentalism.
The chilling rumour that the French Government was planning to create a register of Muslim schoolchildren is substantiated nowhere in the bill. However, there is a move to curb homeschooling, in response to concerns over the withdrawal of Muslim children, particularly girls, from state schools.
The government has been accused of neglecting the socio-economic ‘drivers’ of radicalism, in favour of a war against Islamism. This though, overlooks the considerable funding injection and cohesion plans contained within the new measures and the billions of euros invested in the banlieues in recent years.
Furthermore, Macron has acknowledged that failures of integration and the retreat of public services have helped to open the door to the “separatism” he’s trying to combat. Of course, socio-economic factors alone are insufficient to explain the growth of Islamist separatism and jihadist radicalisation in France — but that’s a discussion for another time.
Even Macron’s alleged “ultimatum” for Muslim organisations to sign a ‘republican values’ charter looks tame compared to the social media moral panic. This is hardly uncharted territory: for instance, influenced by the attempted takeover of Birmingham schools by hardliners, the UK now mandates that all schools promote ‘Fundamental British Values’; and, in 2017, Italy asked Muslim groups to sign a pact for an “Italian Islam” — supported by the Italian Islamic Confederation.
France has certainly taken a tough approach in some cases, such as the decision to dissolve organisations Minister Darmanin unapologetically describes as “Islamist dispensaries”, but the new law against separatism reads less as Macron’s maniacal descent into fascism and more as a relatively mild (but welcome) reinforcement of liberal, secular values. After all, at times they do actually need defending.