World News: France’s New Islamist Separatism Bill Is More Complicated Than It Seems

Riley Rice, Contributing Writer

On Feb. 16, the French National Assembly, a rough equivalent to the House of Representatives in the United States, passed a law aimed at curtailing what proponents of the bill call “Islamic separatism.” The move has caused outrage in France among France’s Muslim population and boycotts of French goods in Muslim-majority countries around the world. However, this bill did not spark the debate over Islam in France, it is simply a continuation of it. 

So what’s in the bill? As mentioned earlier, the bill targets what has been dubbed “Islamic separatism.” Very generally supporters claim that the bill aims to eliminate or reduce the overt enforcement of religious values in French life and uphold laïcité, the French principle of the separation of church and state. It bans all public servants from espousing religious views, political opinions and even wearing or displaying physical representations of their religion, such as donning a niqab or hijab. The bill also contains language that would give French police the power to shut down sites of religious worship to stop them from spreading hate. It also bans so-called “viginity tests,” a frequently requested service that Muslim women are asked to go through before marraige. Most controversially, however, French senators have voted to add an amendment to the bill, which has yet to officially pass, that would ban girls under the age of eighteen from being able to wear the hijab, or any other face covering. 

This debate, like all things involving religion, requires context and a lot of it. France is a nation-state. As defined in the Oxford-English Dictionary, a nation-state is, “An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally or ethnically).” The French are a people descended from a common heritage, the ancient Kingdoms of the Visigoths and the Gauls. In this way, it is distinct from countries like the United States which itself is a nation formed of immigrants. To most in France, it would be silly to ask the question, “Where did your ancestors come from?” in the same way that we do here in the U.S. 

Of course, this is not true of everyone in France. According to 2018 data from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, almost 10%, 6.5 million people living in France today are foreign born, and this does not account for those whose families have only been in France for a few generations. France’s immigrant population is growing and as it has grown, so has the hostility to it. 

Infrequent but significant terrorist attacks in France have escalated this hostility, especially amongst the far-right wing of the French political sphere. In 2015, the Charlie Hebdo attack occured after a satire magazine published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhummad, a practice forbidden in Islam. And in 2020, a French school teacher was beheaded for allegations, which were later proved to be falsified, that he was asking Muslim students to leave class as he showed pictures of the prophet during a course concerning freedom of speech and expression. 

Attacks like these have made a significant portion of the French public fearful of the threat that Islam may pose to their way of life. The populace of Metropolitan France views these attacks in blatant disregard for their principles of liberté, egalité and fraternité. These three principles, along with laïcité, are foundational to the identity of the French nation. So while some in the United States may see this bill as xenophobic or intolerant, the history of France’s nation-state identity and the effects of the recent terrorist attacks in the country must be taken into account when making sense of this situation. The invocation of cultural relativism here is essential. This means understanding a culture on its own terms and not making judgements based off of the criterion of one’s own. America is a melting pot, France isn’t, at least not yet and the French have a distinct identity and character that they don’t yet seem keen to change. 

The question must then be asked, on what metric should this bill be judged. If through cultural relativism, this law is understood in a French cultural context, is it impossible to critique? No. 

This law is a massive example of government overreach. Many in the French government see it as the only way to protect French national identity and preserve their cherished value of laïcité. However, the cost is that many other French citizens and residents will lose their freedom of expression, speech and worship. Is it worth that cost? We shouldn’t be so convinced that it is. Is it the government’s place to tell people what they can and cannot wear? What speech can be included under the all too ambiguous definition of hate when it comes to shutting down religious institutions? This law opens the door to massive abuse of government power. In the end, it will not uphold the liberty of French citizens, but instead will quash it.