In the very first article of the French Constitution, the nation guarantees that “it shall respect all beliefs.” But before this succinct, 5-word statement, the Constitution states that France shall be a secular republic. The reconciliation between secularism and respect for all beliefs, teeter-tottering over history, has finally come to a head in France. In a state that enshrines Liberté, égalité, fraternité, — liberty, equality, brotherhood — there is understandably public outrage against French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed legislation to fight back against “Islamic separatism.”
France’s journey to secularism has not been a tranquil one. Before the French Revolution, the official religion of France was Roman Catholicism – a faith still very much alive today with little over half of the French population Catholic. But after a struggle with the Catholic clergy, the ‘Separation of the Churches and the State’ law was established in 1905. This law abolished the system of “recognized religions” and thoroughly implemented secularization, termed laïcité. In practice, no French public institution may endorse any religion, such as displaying religious symbolism (e.g., crucifix). In early 20th-century France, this law was an attempt to limit religious interference in government affairs. But many now wonder if the law has strayed too far from its original intentions.
In recent years, the entrenched tradition of laïcité has been cited to limit religious expression by Muslims, such as the 2004 headscarf ban. These statutes often prompt debates on the boundary between state secularism and the freedom of religion, but none have attracted as much ire as President Macron’s proposed legislation to curtail “Islamic separatism.” The new bill, slated to go to parliament February 2021, seeks to increase oversight of mosque financing and the scrutinization of schools and associations serving religious communities. It also severely restricts Muslim homeschooling, as Macron puts it, run by “religious extremists.” Heavy punishments are levied on the refusal of medical assistance by opposite-gender medical professionals.
The legislation has been termed discriminatory as it only targets “Islamic separatism” and does not include long-running separatist movements such as Corsican nationalism. Its proposed enforcement mechanisms are seen as egregious as it requires public services to report “early signs of radicalization,” such as praying in public. Macron often uses the reason of “consolidating republican principles” to legitimize these measures. This raises a critical question: are some republican principles more important than others? Is the “reassertion” of republican principles simply a more amenable way to say “impose”?
It is important to remember that every sovereign nation has the right to create and enforce legislation. It is also important for legislations to adhere to founding values, as they underpin the legitimacy of the state. The incisive contention is whether Macron is using the values of the state to usher in regulations that contradict those tenets. The backdrop of this debate is the looming challenge of the French 2022 election, with Macron’s reelection bid threatened by Marine Le Pen, a staunch anti-immigrant politician. Many in the pro-Macron camp see the proposed legislation to steer his party towards the center, given France is among the biggest Western sources of IS militants.
This legislation is also buoyed by the public beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty in late 2020 after showing comics depicting Prophet Mohammed in a class about free speech. Macron has said that the government is partly to blame for these violent acts, as it has left a void in many of France’s poorer areas, with religious associations stepping in to provide educational and child support. These religious associations are allegedly preaching radical Islam in these impressionable settings. Macron faces an especially tough legislative battle ahead as France is home to 5 million Muslims, one of the largest concentrations in Europe.
As France trends towards a society dominated by liberal values such as gender equality, sexual freedom, and coeducation, the deepening rift with ensconced conservative religious principles is a challenge that is inevitably faced by French leadership. A core responsibility of democracies is to protect the rights of the minority. Branding “Islamic separatism” specifically risks stigmatizing Muslims as a whole. It pits one corner of society against another—not unlike the aftermath of September 11—where individual Muslims were targets of public humiliation and shaming.
Tianjiu Zuo is from Hong Kong and is studying Public Policy and Economics.