France’s lower house on Tuesday voted for a law to combat “Islamist separatism,” which the government will charge in return for religious groups trying to undermine the secular state.
The bill, which was criticized for stigmatizing Muslims and giving the state new powers to limit language and religious groups, was supported by a clear majority of MPs in the National Assembly.
President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party rallied around the law. 347 National Assembly legislators voted in favor, 151 against and 65 abstained.
The text will now be submitted to the Senate of the House of Lords, where Macron’s party does not have a majority.
“It is an extremely strong secular offensive,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL Radio before the vote on Tuesday. “It’s a hard text … but necessary for the republic.”
Among the more than 70 separate articles, the law extends the state’s ability to close places of worship and religious schools, as well as banning extremist preachers.
Amid concerns about the funding of mosques by Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, religious groups must report large foreign donations and have their accounts certified.
There are presidential elections next year and decades of disagreement over the integration of France’s large Muslim population and the threat of Islamists, which are creating new tensions.
Macron and Darmanin, in particular, have been accused of reaching out to far-right voters by exaggerating the danger posed by Islamist groups in the often marginalized immigrant communities in French suburbs.
The government counters that the threat is real, citing repeated terrorist attacks and what Macron called the development of a “counter-society” that opposes secularism, equality and other French values and laws.
Last week, a school teacher in a troubled suburb south-west of Paris gained national prominence on claims he needed police protection after receiving death threats to denounce local Islamists.
Right-wing parties see him as a whistleblower warning of the dangers posed by extremist groups, while the left have pointed out his provocative statements about Islam and accused him of overstating the threat.
His case caught the national media because it echoed the beheading of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, by a youthful Islamist last October, shocking the country deeply.
Paty was the subject of an online hate campaign launched by a parent of a child at his school that objected to the display of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a citizenship course on free speech.
Paty’s assassination resulted in the addition of a new crime to the bill that would reveal personal information about someone when it was known that doing so would put the person at risk.
Another crime of “separatism” – defined as a threat by an official to obtain “full or partial exemption or other application of the rules” – would result in a prison sentence of up to five years.
The right-wing opposition Republican Party (LR) and the far-right national rally have both declared that the bill does not go far enough.
They have called for restrictions on the wearing of the Islamic veil, both of which are seen as a manifestation of Islamism and not an expression of cultural identity or religious piety.
The government has rejected calls for a broader headscarf ban, but the law will extend the requirement for “religious neutrality” in clothing to include those who work for private companies that provide public services.
Critics say Macron is trying to improve his record on Islamism and security before another match with far-right leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s elections.
He recently launched an initiative to ask eight associations representing Muslims in France to sign a ten-point charter of principles, which three were opposed to.
The 43-year-old head of state is also accused of doing too little to tackle discrimination and racism, despite promises of new law and funding to help marginalized communities.
Almost 200 people demonstrated against the law on Sunday in Paris, accusing it of “increasing discrimination against Muslims”.
In January a group of scholars and activists wrote in Liberation newspaper that the law was “an unprecedented blow” to freedom of religion and freedom to organize.
Following Paty’s assassination, the government used its existing powers to shut down several mosques and two leading Muslim organizations, the Baraka City charity and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)