Since 2015, 260 people have been killed in terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists in France; this October alone, the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and an attack in Nice shook the country. But the legislation unveiled by the French government last week — to combat what Prime Minister Jean Castex has called “the enemy within” and President Emmanuel Macron terms as “Islamist separatism” — could be counterproductive. First, by targeting them specifically, it may well reinforce the alienation and sense of persecution that many Muslims in France feel, which in turn can only exacerbate the problem of radicalisation. Second, it is a legal blunt instrument to deal with the deeper challenge of the conflict between laïcité (the French notion of secularism), égalité (equality) and liberté (freedom), in post-colonial and multi-cultural France.
Dealing with radicalisation in the era of mass media and the internet is a complex challenge. A law to “reinforce republican principles”, though, risks being seen as identifying Muslims, not extremism, as the problem. It proposes to curb home schooling, oblige religious and community associations to sign declarations of allegiance to the “values of the republic” and impose strict controls on their funding, allowing the police greater impunity when dealing with a particular community and curbing “hate speech” of the kind that preceded Paty’s murder. In trying to protect the right to free speech, and the right to life, of the majority, the French government risks diluting basic, founding principles of the republic — equality before law, and the notion that the individual citizen is the rights-bearer, not the community to which she/he belongs.
Laïcité, as it has evolved in law and practice since the early 20th century, is the complete expulsion of religion and religious symbols from public life. The hijab and the Sikh turban are just two symbols that have conflicted with the idea in practice. Now, this notion of secularism is being enshrined in an extreme legal form. A cynical reason being given for this is that a politically-besieged Macron — his popularity has yet to recover from the Yellow Vest protests and the defections from his party — is moving to the right, trying to unite a country grieving over victims of terror behind him. For France and its government, there may be a lesson in the experiences of other countries with stringent laws to target terrorism — these have often been used in a heavy-handed manner against minorities and dissidents. The way forward was articulated by Macron himself in the aftermath of Paty’s killing. By failing to address the marginalisation of some French citizens, he said, the state suffered “from its own form of separatism”. Addressing that gap is a vital part of dealing with the problem of radicalisation.