PARIS — The French government officially unveiled its draft law against Islamist "separatism" Wednesday, a bill that follows two recent terrorist attacks and has elicited a fierce debate in France and abroad over the limits of government involvement in religious affairs.
But the government has also struggled to control the messaging behind the legislation, which would among other things abolish virginity certificates, tightly control home schooling and ban public-sector employees from wearing religious clothing in the workplace.
It would also require civic associations seen as violating French values to profess allegiance to “republican principles” if they wish to receive government subsidies.
France insists it’s targeting Islamist extremism. But some foreign observers and French Muslims see a broader agenda.
President Emmanuel Macron first outlined the idea behind the bill in a lengthy, nuanced speech in October that appealed both to the political left and right.
But in various public statements since then, his cabinet ministers have clouded his message, taking aim at such things as halal meat and “Islamo-leftism” in French universities. Macron has been struggling to assure critics that the bill will target only Islamist extremism, not Islam in general.
“The text is not a text against religions, not against the Muslim religion in particular,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told reporters as he outlined the legislation. “It’s a law of emancipation in the face of religious fanaticism.”
From the beginning, a key question for French Muslims and civil liberties advocates has been the difference between “Islam” and “Islamism.” But the text of the draft law neither includes nor defines the term.
The government says that using the term “Islamism” is unnecessary given that the idea behind the proposed law is higher-altitude, defending “the incarnation of republican principles,” in the words of one adviser to Macron who spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with the protocols of the Élysée Palace, the seat of the president.
“So there is no definition, since the term does not appear,” the adviser said.
Macron has drawn sharp criticism for his effort from the likes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who have accused the French president of targeting Muslims in general. The French government has brushed off these critiques as cynical politicking.
But U.S. State Department officials also recently expressed concern about the direction of the debate in France.
“I’m obviously concerned,” Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said at a Tuesday briefing.
“You cannot practice your faith violently, or, I mean, there’s going to be consequences to that. But if you’re peacefully practicing your faith, you’re entitled to practice that faith as you see fit,” he said.
The Trump administration has faced its own criticism for policies deemed hostile to Muslims, including a “Muslim ban” that restricted people from certain countries from traveling to the United States.
The French government’s announcement comes on the 115th anniversary of France’s 1905 law enshrining secularism, or “laïcité,” arguably the most cherished legislation in the history of the republic. That law guarantees freedom of conscience — the freedom to believe or not to believe — the neutrality of the state and freedom from religious coercion.
Opinion polls show that the French public overwhelmingly supports the government’s campaign against separatism. In an October survey conducted after Macron’s initial speech by the IFOP polling agency for CNews and Sud Radio, 87 percent of those interviewed said fighting separatism was either “a top priority” or “important.”
But some scholars view the government’s proposals as a sly attempt to regulate religious affairs, specifically Muslim affairs.
“The government is not targeting nonreligious forms of separatism — its clear target is Islam,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, an expert in religious freedoms in France. “But since one cannot legislate against a particular religion — that would be deemed discriminatory and unconstitutional — we draft it broadly enough so it appeals to everyone.”
French legal scholars also dispute the need for such a legislation, given the 1905 law. Article 31 of that law, for instance, punishes the practice of religious coercion.
“It’s all already there, and it has been since 1905,” said Patrick Weil, an expert on the history of French secularism. “The best way to defend laïcité is simply its explanation in the law and its implementation.”