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Macron Rolls Out Vision to Reorganize Islam in France

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 10/2/2020 Ania Nussbaum
Emmanuel Macron wearing a suit and tie © Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg Emmanuel Macron

(Bloomberg) --

President Emmanuel Macron outlined new proposals he said aim to fight organizations and individuals that threaten the unity and secular values of the French Republic, chief among them: radical Islam.

“Secularism is the cement of a united France,” Macron said in a long-awaited speech on Friday. “0ur challenge is to fight against those who go off the rails in the name of religion, while protecting those who believe in Islam and are full citizens of the Republic.”

Macron has been trying to counter accusations that he’s soft on crime, including militant Islam -- topics becoming so key ahead of local elections next year that he skipped a meeting of European Union leaders to make the speech. A recent survey by the Odoxa pollsters showed the majority of voters support his proposed anti-separatism legislation.

To underline his points, Macron chose to speak in Les Mureaux, a sprawling suburb northwest of Paris plagued by social and economic problems, where a policeman was gunned down during a wave of extremist violence in 2015 and 2016.

The French state is partly responsible for the “ghettoization” of communities where radical Islamists have taken root because it hasn’t paid them enough attention, he said. “Where we stepped away, they stepped in.” France’s colonial history meanwhile left scars that never healed.

‘In Crisis’

Throughout the speech, Macron sought to assure Muslims that he’s not targeting Islam, saying things like, let us not fall into the trap laid by extremists “who aim to stigmatize all Muslims.”

He also referred to the 1905 law on secularism that allows people to belong to any faith they choose, but he said, obvious displays of any religious affiliation won’t be tolerated in schools or the public service.

And when his attention was brought to an accusation in a tweet by far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon during a question-and-answer session that it was an anti-Muslim speech, Macron said, “I don’t have the feeling that my speech was against Muslims, quite the contrary.”

Yet the president depicted a grim picture of the state of Islam, saying it was “in crisis, including in countries where it is a majority religion.”

“We must help this religion organize itself so that it’s a partner for the Republic,” Macron said. “We need to build an Islam of enlightenment,” he added, referring to the philosophical movement that promoted the separation of church and state.

‘Free Islam’

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy harbored similar ambitions to “re-organize Islam,” and Macron said it was necessary to keep trying to “defend the republic and its values and ensure it respects its promises of equality and emancipation.”

“I don’t think we need a form of French-style Islam,” he said. “We need to free Islam in France from its foreign influences.”

The comments risk alienating France’s large Muslim population, many of whom already feel singled out by measures such as a ban on veils in public schools. A large number of people who responded to the Odoxa poll said they fear the new measures may deepen fractures in French society.

Key Muslim figures slammed the proposals. Chems-eddine Hafiz, rector of the Paris mosque, described them as “gimmicks” in an editorial in Le Monde newspaper,and called for collective action rather than “a communication coup” before elections. Amar Lasfar, the rector of the Lille-Sud mosque, said that much of what Macron outlined “doesn’t fall under the remit of the state.”

Macron thanked ministers for their help in putting together the proposals, among them Gerald Darmanin, a conservative close to Sarkozy who was named interior minister in July. A draft bill will be unveiled in mid-October but is unlikely to have sweeping effects before the 2022 presidential election.

Macron said the proposed law would also:

Make it easier for the state to intervene when public servants show signs of radicalizationStrengthen controls and dry up funding for organizations that promote radicalism under the guise of sports or leisureMake school mandatory from the age of three and ban homeschooling to prevent the formation of Islamic schools, though children with health issues would be exemptEmphasis oversight of language schoolsCreate a certification for French imamsMonitor funding to religious groups from foreign countries, and ban projects “incompatible with the values of the Republic”Set aside 10 million euros to support high-level Islamic studies, and create a scientific Islamology institute

(Updates with quotes, context throughout.)

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