French MPs back President Emmanuel Macron's anti-extremism bill

New legislation seeks to rid France of extremism but critics dismiss it as anti-Muslim

FILE - In this Oct.17, 2020 file photo, a poster reading "I am Samuel" and flowers lay outside the school where slain history teacher Samuel Paty was working, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris. French lawmakers tackle a bill on Monday to dig up radical Islam by its roots in the country, beliefs that authorities maintain are creeping into public services, associations, some schools and online with the goal of undermining national values. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
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Parliamentarians in France's lower house on Tuesday backed the government's controversial bill that President Emmanuel Macron said was designed to rid the country of extremism and protect French values.

The bill, called Reinforcing Republican Principles, passed by 347 votes to 151.

It will implement stricter monitoring of the country's mosques and schools after a wave of extremist attacks.

It has been perceived by critics to single out Muslims and intrude on basic freedom, while Mr Macron has been accused of pandering to right-wing voters before next year’s presidential election.

What exactly is France's new 'anti-separatism' bill?

What exactly is France's new 'anti-separatism' bill?

The bill was fast-tracked after the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty on the outskirts of Paris last year.

Paty provoked anger in the local Muslim community for showing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to pupils in his classroom.

The 51-article act bans virginity certificates and provides measures against polygamy and forced marriage.

Other elements include ensuring that children attend regular school from the age of 3 in a move to deter home-schooling where ideology is taught. All public employees will be trained in secularism.

The legislation represented a "powerful offensive" by the secular state, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.

"It's a tough text ... but necessary for the republic," Mr Darmanin told RTL radio before the vote.

While the policy has alienated minorities and frustrated liberals, rekindling claims of state-sponsored “Islamophobia”, Mr Macron is struggling to persuade conservative voters he needs for re-election that his approach will work.

Polls suggested that voters overwhelmingly agree on the importance of the issue but show him lagging behind far-right candidate Marine Le Pen when electors are asked who they trust to handle it.

She is running neck and neck with Mr Macron after working relentlessly to “de-demonise” her party’s image without weakening its central anti-Islamism, anti-immigration message.

Some Muslims said they sensed a climate of suspicion.

“There’s confusion. A Muslim is a Muslim and that’s all,” taxi driver Bahri Ayari said after midday prayers at the Grand Mosque of Paris.

“We talk about radicals, about I don’t know what. There is a book. There is a Prophet. The Prophet has taught us.”

As for convicted radicals, he said, their crimes “get put on the back of Islam. That’s not what a Muslim is".

Raberh Achi, a political scientist, told The National  that Mr Macron's government had adopted a "purely repressive" stance in its approach to separatism.

Mr Achi said that this was the first time a government had tampered with France’s keystone law of 1905, separating church and state “in an anti-liberal sense”.

“This bill allows the executive to occupy the political space that goes from the traditional right to the extreme right,” he said.