Macron’s hot bold move against separatism

  • + Macron proposed a new bill aimed to promote French secularism.
  • + The bill has been criticized for isolating the French Muslim community.
  • + The French National Assembly passed the bill in February 2021.
Macron's new bill, aimed to promote French secularism and Republicanism, has been criticized for isolating the French Muslim community.
Source: Élysée

Why is Macron’s heat level hot?

Answer: Due to the introduction of a new bill to promote French secularism.

If there is one political concept that France is known for, it is definitely secularism or “laïcité” in French. In 1905, the separation between the State and the Church was declared. It is within this tradition of secularism that a new bill aiming to fight separatism was introduced at the end of 2020 by Macron.

During the past decades, French authorities have been concerned by Islamist radicals creating closed communities, away from Republican values. While the question of integration and assimilation had been high on Macron’s campaign agenda, these debates re-emerged with the killing of professor Samuel Paty. On the 16th October 2020, Paty was beheaded for having shown cartoons of the prophet Muhammad during class.

While the bill is new, the concern over radical Islamism isn’t. The bill is the result of events from the past decade that have threatened French security. This echoes 2015 the terrorist attack which took the life of 12 members of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. The newspaper was known for its satirical columns often targeting various religions. The attack was the culmination of recurring death threats due to the satirical portrayal of the prophet. 

Some of the main aspects of this new bill include stricter control of religious associations, as well as the financial control of the money they might receive from abroad. It also includes the restriction of home-schooling, which will only be authorised for medical reasons.

The killing of Samuel Paty not only allowed this bill to gain momentum but also influenced its content. Amendments included new criminal offences for threatening public sector employees as well as new offences for hate speech and the spread of someone’s personal information with malevolent intentions. Indeed, Macron’s new bill has caused a stir in domestic and international politics.

Who is changing Macron’s temperature?

Answer: His ability to push forth the bill despite political, public and international opposition.

The bill proposed by Macron’s, La Republique En Marche (LREM), had diverse reactions from the audience. First, the bill had to pass through the French National Assembly. While the French president has majority support in the assembly, the bill was extensively discussed for approximately 135 hours and required 313 amendments. On February 16th, the bill was passed by a vote of 347 against 151.

However, it is still criticised by the far-right for not going far enough. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right party Le Rassemblement national as well as Macron’s opponent in 2017, criticised the bill for attacking all religions except Islamism, once again conflating the Muslim religion and the Islamist ideology. Instead, she supported amendments to the bill which would have allowed the expulsion of 4,000 suspected individuals as well as a complete ban on the Muslim headscarf in all public spaces.

Now, the bill has been sent to the Senate. Macron’s party does not hold the majority of the Senate. The largest group represented is Les Républicains, a right wing party, more conservative than La Republique En Marche. However, considering it is largely dominated by conservatives, it is expected to be approved easily. In addition, the Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Council), in charge of alerting the members of Parliament when a law is unconstitutional, has not raised concerns about the bill, which reinforces expectations of its passing.

On the other hand, the bill was heavily criticised by multiple actors. First, the French Muslim community feels overly targeted.  Indeed, while the bill itself never specifically mentioned a religion, political leaders did. Prime Minister Jean Castex, for instance, was only able to bring up examples linked to Islamist separatism. In addition, Emmanuel Macron himself openly talked about Islamist separatism during his speech on October 2nd last year.

Furthermore, there is a concern that the government is infringing on essential freedoms and that it will lead to the stigmatisation of the Muslim community. This led to protests against the bill and its supporters. It is not the first time that a security measure has faced backlash for curtailing individual liberties in France. The emergency state implemented after the 2015 attacks which was renewed multiple times by former President Hollande and ended by current President Macron was also very much criticised.

The introduction of this bill had international impacts on Emmanuel Macron and the French Republic which received backlash. First, Macron has been criticised by Muslim countries, millions called for the boycott of French products and protested against France and its leader. For instance, Erdogan publicly criticised Macron, calling for a boycott and urging other leaders to protect Muslims.

After the bill has been passed, it was the Pakistani president, Arif Alv, who called the bill a “dangerous precedent” and asked French authorities not to “entrench these attitudes into laws”. Secondly, Macron was also criticised in American media, which led him to personally respond in the Financial Times to defend the bill. Lastly, a group of lawyers, NGOs and religious bodies from 13 different countries have taken the issue to the United Nations by submitting a formal complaint. 

What is driving Macron?

Answer: The 2022 Presidential elections.

In 2018, Macron made tackling radicalisation and separatism one of the priorities of his presidency, he wanted to “set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organised in France”. However, the bill was only introduced in 2020 and gained momentum for two reasons.

First, the bill was introduced as a response to terrorist attacks at the end of 2020, the killing of Paty as well as that of 3 people in a church in Nice. It is a way to potentially prevent future radicalisation but also to tighten the definition of what is regarded as non-Republican

Secondly, the introduction of this bill has also been regarded as a political move towards the 2022 presidential elections. Indeed, even if Macron has been elected as a member of a centrist party, he is now leaning more towards the right in order to prepare for a potential second round against the far-right. This is especially relevant since polls in Le Parisien showed Le Pen and Macron neck to neck in terms of popularity with 48% and 52% respectively. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: A possible ripple effect across Europe.

The passing of this bill has multiple implications. First, it is the first bill aiming to broadly tackle separatism within the French society even if it builds on the tradition of secularism following the 1905 law of separation of church and state. The state has reached a new level of control of private life and public space. 

Second, it would directly impact the French Muslim population. 5 million of people would potentially suffer from more scrutiny and stigmatisation after the implementation of this new bill. This is embedded in the opposition of the French tradition of preventing religion in public spaces with the observance of the Muslim faith.

Third, Macron, a so-called centrist president, pushing for policies echoing the far-right would embolden and potentially further normalise Islamophobic tendencies already present in France. Indeed, like in the rest of the European Union, the far-right and its xenophobic discourses have been on the rise in France, culminating with Marine Le Pen at the second round of 2017 French elections. However, these discourses are now present throughout society and lead to the securitisation of the Muslim community, constantly portrayed as a threat to the French society and deeply related to religious terrorism.

Furthermore, this sets a precedent for other European countries. Indeed, France has been at the centre of debates about secularism, for instance around the veil in public spaces. In 2011, France already banned veils covering the entire face and prevented public officials from wearing any headscarf. This led to a broader movement across European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands. For instance, Switzerland voted to ban ‘full facial coverings’ in public spaces last week. Thus, the passing of this bill might only be the first of many in Europe.