The controversial project was introduced as a tool to contain Islamic radicalism but in fact threatens religious liberty in general.
by Massimo Introvigne
On October 2, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he will propose a law against “separatism.” On November 18, a text was submitted to the State Council, which should render its opinion on it, with the “defense of Republican principles” replacing in the title the controversial notion of a “fight against separatism”. The text will then pass through the Council of Ministers on December 9, and will be submitted to the Parliament.
The draft law created protests in the Islamic world, and a major diplomatic crisis between France and Turkey after the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vehemently criticized the project as Islamophobic. Other criticism followed statements by the Minister Delegate in Charge of Citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, that the law will also be applied to “cults” (sectes in French).
Obviously, France has its own peculiarities, and its tradition of laïcité (often translated as “secularism,” although no English translation of the word is entirely satisfactory), an ideal dating back to the French Revolution, and shaped by the conflicts between the French state and the Catholic Church of the 19th and early 20th century. Laïcité aims at protecting the French state and society from the possible intrusiveness of religion, and ensuring that the primary loyalty of all French citizens goes to the French Republic.
The so-called “separatism” is in direct opposition to laïcité. It is the attempt by members of some religions to live “separately,” giving their primary loyalty to their religious community rather than to the Republic.
A second French peculiarity we cannot forget is that it has been painfully hit by a terrorism invoking as its ideology a form of Islamic ultra-fundamentalism, more than any other European country.
In this respect, certain provisions of the draft law make sense. For example, the proposed law plans to reinforce the provisions against forced marriages (article 17) and the application of foreign or religious laws depriving women of what, by applying French law, would be recognized as their legitimate heritage (article 13); and to prevent doctors from releasing certificates attesting that a woman is virgin (article 16).
While these are provisions of common sense, it would be equally reasonable that, when promoting them, politicians would avoid any claim that they are trying to reshape Islam in a form acceptable to the average values of the French culture. As long as it does not support terrorism, promotes hate speech against other groups, including Jews, or infringes on human rights of women, a conservative Islam has no less rights to exist and promote its theology than a liberal Islam.
I am the co-author of a White Paper that criticized the draft law before it final text was established, based on a preliminary memorandum by Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin. The draft law as forwarded to the State Council follows the memorandum, and includes more details. There are four areas where the law, if approved in the present form, would create serious problems for religious liberty.
First, the French police is already authorized to keep a watch on sermons in places of worship, and intervene in case they promote terrorism, racism, or anti-Semitism. However, Article 47 allows administrative authorities to shut down a place of worship (without passing through a court of law) where sermons have promoted, inter alia, “discrimination” against others “based on (..) sex, sexual orientation, or (…) being, or not being, part of a certain religion.” Here, it all depends on how the authorities would interpret “discrimination.” For example, would a priest defending the Catholic position that women cannot become priests, or a preacher criticizing same-sex marriage, or a minister insisting that only those belonging to his (or her) religion will gain eternal life, be regarded as guilty of “discrimination”?
Second, homeschooling is basically banned for all children, from age three. Exceptions can only be granted when attending a public or publicly accredited school is impossible “because of the situation of the student or of the family,” and for one year only (article 18). Objections that only a tiny minority of the homeschooled children are Muslims, and that not a single terrorist identified and arrested in France had been homeschooled were ignored. It seems a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, also ignoring data on the good results of the children who were homeschooled, and Article 26, no. 3, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating that, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” It seems that on this point our criticism is shared by the State Council.
Third, the activities of foreign-based religions are seriously limited by Article 38. Any contribution, either in cash or in other benefits, above Euro 10,000 should be declared to the local administrative authority, which can deny the authorization to receive it if it believes that a “fundamental social interest” is threatened. The expression is so vague that it leaves the French branches of any religion the authorities, for whatever reason, do not like to the mercy of the local “prefects.”
Fourth, a speedy tool for dissolving or liquidating religious associations by decree of the Council of Ministers (again, without passing through a court of law) is created by Article 8. Reasons for the liquidation not only include the advocacy of violence or terrorism, but also “psychological pressures” on members, and inciting or committing “acts against human dignity.” France has a long history of campaign against religious minorities labeled as “cults” (sectes) and, as mentioned earlier, Minister Delegate Schiappa has already announced that “cults” will be targeted for dissolution “as well as radical Islamic groups.”
“Psychological pressure” is an expression hiding the old accusation of “brainwashing,” an idea discredited as pseudo-scientific by scholars studying new religious movements, but still popular among anti-cultists and sensationalist media. The notion of “human dignity” is noble, but not codified. Anti-cultists, for example, believe that the fact that some religious movements counsel their members to no longer associate with ex-members who have left and criticize the group is a violation of the “human dignity” of the “apostate” ex-members. This is argued despite the fact that courts of law around the world have declared that such “ostracism” is part of the freedom of religious communities to organize themselves as they deem fit.
Add to this that religious associations can be liquidated because of the wrongdoings of individual members, if the leaders knew about them and did not stop them quickly, and that a temporary suspension of all activities of a group for three months may be ordered by a simple decree of the Minister of Internal Affairs.
A good number of French citizens do approve these measures. They believe they are needed to contain the threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Few of them are probably aware of the Russian precedent. In Russia, a draconian law against “extremism” was presented to the public opinion as a necessary tool to fight Islamic radicals and terrorists. In fact, it was used to liquidate peaceful (and non-Islamic) communities, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, confiscate their properties, and arrest their members. Obviously, a law targeting only one religion would be against the French Constitution. But one allowing to limit the freedom of, and even liquidate, any religion accused of the vaguely defined crimes of “psychological pressures” or “denying the human dignity” of members and ex-members, creates the risk of liquidating not only unpopular religious movement, but freedom of religion or belief itself.