On April 12th, France’s Upper House passed a controversial bill known as the “separatism bill,” adopted at first reading by 208 votes, with 109 votes against and 27 abstentions. This bill aims to fight the spread of Islamic separatism in France by controlling Islamic teachings and practices. This includes banning religious symbols from school trips, including the hijab, a religious veil worn by Muslim women. The bill also bans minors from wearing the hijab in public spaces and the burkini in public swimming pools, and bans prayers within university walls, as well as controlling religious associations and places of worship.
In attempt to justify this bill during an October 2020 speech, President Emmanuel Macron described Islamic separatism as a “conscious theorized, political religious project that materializes by repeated deviation from the values of the Republic.” Macron perceives radical Islam as a threat to France’s republican values, which support the right to freedom of conscience, participation in public spheres, and the right to expression, going so far as to include the right to blasphemy. Macron fears that Islamic laws will eventually assert themselves as superior than republic laws. He then described Islam as a “parallel order … a crisis plagued by radical temptations whose final goal is to take over.”
The president’s speech prompted backlash from Muslim communities and activists all around the globe.
Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist, tweeted, “The repression of Muslims has been a threat, now it is a promise.”
Another tweet by Miqdaad Versi, director of media monitoring at the Muslim Council for Britain, read, “The willingness to use Islam and minority Muslim communities to rally supporters by prompting a divisive culture war against minorities, in the midst of the corona pandemic, shows more about those who promote divisiveness than anyone else.”
American Muslim women created the viral hashtag #handsoffmyhijab in hopes of supporting Muslims in France. Prominent representatives, such as American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, have used the hashtag. “France, the world is watching,” Omar posted on Instagram.
“The bill is problematic because it inherently stigmatizes Muslims,” Momodou Malcolm Jallow explained, “increasing suspicion and indirectly suggesting a link between Muslims and foreign or terrorist threats.” Jallow is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s general rapporteur. He emphasized that the bill “seriously undermines France’s constitutional values, including human dignity and gender equality,” calling upon the French government to “protect human rights and not sow division among the French population.”
Amnesty International has called for the “many problematic provisions of the bill” to be amended or removed. “This proposed law is wide and open to abuse and a threat to the very freedoms the French authorities claim to stand for,” Marco Perolini, the organization’s Europe researcher, said. Perolini criticized the French government’s use of vague and ill-defined concepts of “radicalization” and “radical Islam” to justify the imposition of these extreme measures without valid grounds.
During Macron’s speech in October, the president stated that “secularism is the neutrality of the State and in no case the erasure of religions in society in the public space.” However, the creation of the separatism bill itself proves to contradict this statement. By prohibiting young Muslim girls from wearing their religious symbols, their hijab, in public, France is actively erasing a religion from society. This suggests that the state itself is not as neutral as it declares it is. Moreover, the bill does not align with republican values of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, therefore contravening Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
President Macron emphasized the need to control the spread of radicalized Islam within France, then proceeded to introduce a bill that paints all Muslims as the problem. This is alarming and Islamophobic. If the National Assembly approves the separatism bill, it will incite hate speech and violence against French Muslims, inviting the same disunity it seeks to prevent.