French Senate clears controversial “separatism bill”
Lawmakers in the French parliament’s upper house this week approved a tougher version of a controversial bill that the government says aims to safeguard France from radical Islamists but which critics fear could be anti-Islamic, according to local media reports.
After two weeks of intense debate, lawmakers voted 208-109 to reportedly clear the new version of the bill titled “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic”.
A commission made up of seven MPs of France’s National Assembly, which is the lower house, and seven senators will now try to come to an agreement on the final text of the bill in order to take it forward, according to Le Figaro newspaper.
The National Assembly will have the final say in signing the bill into law. The earlier version of the bill - widely referred to as “separatism bill” - was first approved by the lower house back in February.
The government maintains the bill is intended to crack down on hate speech and actions by religious figures and organisations that are seen as subverting core values of the French republic.
It allows the government to close religious organisations and places of worship if they are found to air “theories or ideas” that “provoke hate or violence”, according to reports.
Many critics, however, see the new law as perhaps xenophobic and part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s tilt towards the far-right ahead of next year’s elections, especially since a controversial remark he had made in the aftermath of several terror attacks in France last year.
“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” he had said, drawing fierce criticism at home and abroad.
The bill comes in the backdrop of France suffering a number of Islamist terror attacks last year. Among the prominent ones were the beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher, who had allegedly showed his pupils cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in October; a knife assault outside the former offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, also in October; and the deadly stabbings at a church in Nice in September.
The text of the bill doesn’t mention Islam in order to avoid stigmatising Muslims. France is home to an estimated 5.7 million Muslims.
The conservative-controlled Senate backed a series of amendments to the bill with the objective to make the text tougher, including voting to ban hijabs for minors and reinforcing “neutrality” at universities.
The Senate also passed last-minute amendments, tabled by interior minister Gérald Darmanin on behalf of the president, which allow a prefecture to oppose the opening of a school “for reasons drawn from France’s international relations or the defence of its sovereignty”, according to Le Figaro.
This comes after a recent controversy around the construction of a Muslim school in Albertville, southeastern France, by the Turkish Islamic association Millî Görüş, which has refused to sign the charter of principles of Islam in France, the newspaper reported.
Bruno Retailleau, a right-wing senator and president of The Republicans group in the upper house, has urged the National Assembly to pass this tougher version of the bill.
“The Senate has largely rewritten the separatism law to make it tougher and to target radical Islam. The French are waiting for these strong measures, the majority of the National Assembly must free itself from the government and take account for these measures themselves,” Retailleau tweeted on Tuesday.
Marie-Pierre de la Gontrie of the Socialist Party, meanwhile, said she was opposed to the bill, arguing that the right-wing has transformed it “into an electoral leaflet”.