Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 November 2020

Radical associations to be disbanded in overhaul of French Islam

French president Emmanuel Macron announced a flavour of his plans on Monday.


France’s president Emmanuel Macron has revealed plans to disband some radical Islamic associations and outlaw “certain practices” in what is seen as a preview of his long-awaited announcement on the organisation of Islam in France.

Mr Macron said he was adopting a low-key approach as he worked to finalise decisions “because we have often failed”. He promised announcements in the coming weeks.

The president told French RTL radio he was determined to combat separatism which he claimed had taken root in some areas, leading to the rejection of the French republic and its distortion “in the name of Islam”.

“In my fight against separatism, against political Islam, I will be intractable,” he said.

On Monday he met leaders of the French Muslim Council (CFCM), a body supported by only some French Muslims and previously seen as liable to be replaced or reformed in his eventual proposals for restructuring Islam. Mr Macron initially promised to announce his conclusions in the first half of 2018 .

The president’s comments coincide with rising concern at perceived threats to France’s deep attachment to principles of secularism.

The interview followed publication of a poll for the Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, showing 78 per cent of those questioned felt secularism was menaced, compared with 58 per cent three years ago. Some 61 per cent even said Islam was incompatible with French values.

More than 70 per cent opposed the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols, though Christian crosses and Jewish kippas as well as Muslim veils were mentioned in the question, and 82 per cent praying in streets. But only 39 per cent judged it the most important issue facing the country, listing health, unemployment, spending power, crime and the environment as greater priorities.

A senior commentator from RTL, Olivier Mazerolle, said radicalism “with its rites, codes and clothing” was causing fear of society being swamped by sharia. "The French want measures to prevent a shift in society towards a complete rejection of Islam that would be an absolute disaster," he added.

In one recent controversy, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, not covering her face, was publicly humiliated by a far-right politician, Julien Odoul, while accompanying children, including her own son, on a school visit to a Bourgogne Franche-Comté regional council meeting in eastern France.

She initially tried to laugh off his demand that she should remove her hijab but left when her son began crying. She claims another member of Mr Odoul’s party, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, said: “You’ll see. We’ll win.”

Defending his comments, Mr Odoul called the headwear a provocation after the killings by a Muslim convert of four colleagues, three officers and a fellow civilian worker, at the Paris police headquarters on October 3.

Many mainstream political figures condemned the “stigmatisation” of the woman, identified as Fatima E. But Mr Macron’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said the veil was "legal, but not necessarily desirable". The education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer admitted it was not illegal for a volunteer accompanying schoolchildren to wear a headscarf but added: “We do not wish to encourage the phenomenon [which is] contrary to our values."

The president later appeared to contradict them. “The wearing of the veil in the public space is not my business - the wearing of the veil in public services, at school, when we educate our children, that's my business,” he said.

Although the announcement of forthcoming proposals was thin on detail, Mr Macron talked of “prohibitive measures, dissolving some associations … banning certain practices that have become installed and are not in accordance with the laws of the republic".

The Elysee Palace did not respond to requests for comment.

Thomas Guenole, a left-wing academic and commentator, told The National it seemed the president was at last preparing his much-delayed announcement.

“But we still don’t know what he plans to do,” said Mr Guenole, who believes the so-called Islamist menace in France has been wildly exaggerated.

Anouar Kbibech, the French Muslim Council’s vice president, said after the meeting with Mr Macron that a special assembly of its religious council on Tuesday would produce a “powerful announcement” dealing with “what Islam says about the veil” and warning signs of religious radicalisation.

A rival body is also pursuing plans for the training and payment of imams with funds from small levies on halal purchases and organising Hajj travel packages.

Hakim El Karoui, a French-Tunisian author, former banker and nephew of a former Tunisian prime minister, Hamed Karoui, created the Muslim Association for a French Islam in January aimed at fighting extremism and uniting French Muslims where other bodies have failed.

Mr Macron has given no clues on whether he has national or local associations in mind when vowing to dissolve radical groups.

Nor is it clear whether the meeting with French Muslim Council leaders suggests he has softened his view of a body often criticised in France as unrepresentative but now trying with internal reforms to show it still has an important role to play in organising Islam in France.

Updated: October 28, 2019 09:30 PM

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