French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti waves after a press conference at The Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on Wednesday (AFP photo)
PARIS — The French government defended a draft law clamping down on radical Islamism on Wednesday as a “law of freedom” after a torrent of criticism from Muslim countries and expressions of concern from the US.
President Emmanuel Macron has pushed the legislation — which would tighten rules against religious-based education, online hate speech and polygamy — after a spate of attacks blamed on Islamist radicals.
“This bill is not a text aimed against religions or against the Muslim religion in particular,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told reporters after the Cabinet approved a text to present to parliament.
“It is the reverse — it is a law of freedom, it is a law of protection, it is a law of emancipation against religious fundamentalism.”
Castex said the target of the bill “was the pernicious ideology that goes by the name of Islamist radicalism”.
But the government’s staunch defence of France’s two centuries of secularism has caused unease even among allies.
“There can be constructive engagements that I think can be helpful and not harmful,” said Sam Brownback, a US envoy for religious freedom.
“When you get heavy-handed, the situation can get worse.”
The law was in the pipeline before the October killing of Samuel Paty, a junior high school teacher who was beheaded in the street after showing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a class.
But the killing, committed by an 18-year old Chechen after a virulent social media campaign against the teacher, gave fresh impetus to the bill — prompted the inclusion of the specific crimes of online hate speech and divulging personal information on the Internet.
‘Protect all citizens’
Castex said the new bill was needed after “ever more numerous attacks” against France’s principles “which affect our ability to live serenely together”.
Paty’s death came after a series of other jihadist-inspired attacks in France this year including a knife assault outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and deadly stabbings at a church in Nice.
Castex also cited concerns about children being taken out of school to take part in activities put on by organisations that hide a religious motive.
The draft law sets out stricter criteria for home schooling to prevent parents from taking their children out of public schools and enrolling them in underground Islamic facilities.
Doctors, meanwhile, would be fined or jailed if they performed a virginity test on girls.
Polygamy is already outlawed in France but the new law would also ban authorities from issuing residency papers to polygamous applicants.
It would also require city hall officials to interview couples separately prior to their wedding to make sure that they were not forced into marriage.
“It is a text that seeks to protect all our citizens. It is a text in line with the great tradition of the founders of our republic,” said Castex.
Macron has become a figure of hate in some Muslim countries with some boycotting French products after he said the right to blaspheme would always be guaranteed in France and that Islam was “in crisis”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the draft law an “open provocation”, while Egyptian scholars called Macron’s views racist.
Macron has also been forced on to the defensive by critical headlines in influential English-language media such as The Financial Times and New York Times.
Muslims in France — the former colonies of which include predominantly Muslim countries in north and west Africa as well as the Middle East — are estimated at nearly 4 million, about six percent of the population.