'Anti-separatism' bill may worsen tears in France's social fabric

Law in the making is targeted at the Muslim minorities and will only serve Emmanuel Macron's political interests

Not a day goes by without the media in France making some reference to the "foulard", a French term for the hijab. Its disproportionate focus on what is but a humble cut of cloth represents a wider divide across politics and society concerning identity in that country. France is ostensibly the ideological home of liberal tolerance, however an unmistakably illiberal outlook has become more mainstream. With the passage of the "Respect for the Principles and Values of the Republic" bill, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has set France's immigrant communities in his sights.

Earlier this month, the National Assembly, the French lower house, backed the bill. And on Tuesday, it was passed by 347 votes to 151. Among the 1,860 amendments that had been proposed in it was an extension of the ban on university students wearing hijabs and a ban on parents wearing religious symbols on school trips and premises. Unsurprisingly, the intrusive nature of the bill has drawn concern.

With an election on the horizon and a chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic increasing public hostility towards his government, Mr Macron has used the tried and tested political tactic of shining the spotlight upon his country's immigrant population. The "anti-separatism" bill supposedly focuses only on radical Islam; France has for too long fostered terrorists, and in many cases, exported them. This law, however, will go further. Public services, schools and families will feel the long arm of the state reach to regulate any activity deemed as "un-French" and "un-republican". In outwardly seeking to limit any undermining of national values, Mr Macron, whose liberal candidacy propelled him in a battle against the far right, finds himself now pandering to the same demographic: an insular middle class, at once both proud and anxious of the multiracial nature of modern French society.

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Social marginalisation has inculcated a culture of separatism from the state that is at the centre of France's problems

Aside from the clear electoral advantages of this stance, the President is under pressure to respond to the reality that, since 2015, more than 200 French citizens have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. But in seeking to clamp down on “ideologies that make citizens turn on the republic”, Mr Macron is highlighting a schism in society that simply will not go away.

The 1905 law separating the church and the state may be old, but its central tenant of secularism remains at the forefront of political life. The 51 articles and hundreds of amendments in the new legislation aim to defend that very secularism, by regulating the behaviour of public servants, students and religious institutions. What is unsaid is all the more concerning; the law does not explicitly target Islam, yet its sponsor, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, claims that the aim is to halt “an Islamist hostile takeover”. In seeking to defend one thing, the law has highlighted another: some very concerning racist sentiments.

The officialdom appears as though it neither counts nor recognises minorities in society. Identity, in theory, is assumed to be simply French. This is partly as a rejection of identification methods used during the Second World War and partly to uphold the perceived blind nature of equitable, republican France. This approach is steadily losing ground. The country has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe, and despite many already having to alter their beliefs and, indeed, identity in some cases, the bill now seeks to target religious practice further in its effort to uproot anything deemed to be “undermining national values”.

To many in France, the terminology being used is causing discomfort, because it is yet another iteration of racial discrimination. Citizens with links to North Africa or the Sahel find it more difficult to rent housing or get jobs. According to a government study released last year, a candidate with an Arabic-sounding name would have a less than 25 per cent chance of being vetted for a job compared to other candidates. The study also found "presumed discrimination" against minorities in the hiring practices of seven of the country's major companies. These minorities are also disproportionately absent from French television studios, boardrooms and government. The prospects for education, particularly of those consigned to ghettos, are slim. It is their marginalisation, not that of their religion, that is at the centre of France’s terrorism problem.

Despite this bill, France is in the throes of what can be seen as a social and racial awakening. This has pushed Mr Macron to respond, but his focus solely upon "the nefarious ideology of radical Islamism" has angered many who argue this is a further targeting of religious freedoms.

There is no doubt that some governments have often been at odds with Muslim traditions deemed to be counter to the country's core values. However, this government should be working at binding the state, not stratifying it further with short-term populist policies. France can ill afford the rise in hate crimes against Muslims that have ensued following increased far-right discourse in the political mainstream. The stabbing of veiled women under the Eiffel Tower late last year brought the issue home to many, as hate showed itself under the greatest symbol of the republic.

Although in some respects misguided, the new bill has raised an important issue with regards to encouraging a compatibility with and subscription to the state. Social marginalisation has inculcated a culture of separatism from the state that is at the centre of France’s problems. Disputes about secularism, or laicity, distract from the core issue, which is that large swathes of society don’t feel part of the republic.

With the doors to public life, business and government often closed, it is little surprise that some members of immigrant communities are prey to radical ideologies. Last month, nine associations of the French Council of the Muslim Faith unilaterally denounced “foreign interference, political Islam, and disrespecting gender equality". Agreeing to curb the entry of unregulated and often undereducated imams from overseas, they showed themselves to not only be safeguarding their faith but also the country in which they are citizens. The move was unprecedented and a welcome step in curbing hate towards Muslim groups. For the situation to really improve, however, citizens needs to unite and authorities should not isolate certain groups in order to pander to far-right sentiment.

Zaid M Belbagi is a policy adviser to government officials and institutions, and a partner at Hardcastle Advisory