PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron pledged on Friday to fight “Islamist separatism” which he said was threatening to take control in some Muslim communities around France.
France has struggled with homegrown Islamist militancy for years but Macron’s government is increasingly worried by broader signs of radicalisation – often non-violent – within Muslim communities, French officials say.
They cite the refusal of some Muslim men to shake women’s hands, swimming pools that impose alternate time slots for men and women, girls of as young as four being told to wear full-face veils, and a proliferation of ‘madrassa’ religious schools.
More than 250 people have been killed on French soil over the past five years in attacks by Islamist militants or individuals inspired by jihadist groups.
“What we need to fight is Islamist separatism,” Macron said during a visit to the impoverished Paris suburb of Les Mureaux. “The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic.”
France follows a strict form of secularism, known as “laicite”, which is designed to separate religion and public life. The principle was enshrined in law in 1905 after anti-clerical struggles with the Catholic Church.
In recent decades, the growing desire among French Muslims to express their religious identity has shifted the focus of balancing religious and secular needs onto Islam.
Many French Muslims, though, have long complained of discrimination and marginalisation that have contributed to poverty and social alienation within their communities.
At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be French in a country with Europe’s largest Muslim minority – numbering around 5 million or 7-8% of the population.
Macron says assertive Islamist religious practices are “separatist” because they threaten in his view to secede from French institutions and rules, his advisers say.
A bill tackling Islamist separatism will be sent to parliament early next year, the president said.
Among the measures in the draft law, Macron said home-schooling will be severely restricted to avoid having children being “indoctrinated” in unregistered schools that deviate from the national curriculum.
Prefects – local representatives of the central government – will be given the power to annul decisions by mayors to restrict school cafeterias or swimming pools to women or men only.
There was no immediate reaction from Muslim communities.
Less than two years before the next presidential campaign, Macron is keen not to leave himself open to attacks from the far right and traditional conservative right-wing parties on law-and-order issues such as crime and immigration.
Macron said Islam and radical Islamism should not be conflated and that he wanted to build an “enlightened Islam” in France.
The teaching of Arabic will be encouraged in France and an Institute of Islamology will be created, he said. But foreign imams will no longer be able to train clerics in France and there will be tighter controls on the financing of mosques.
“There is a crisis of Islam everywhere, which is being corrupted by radical forms,” Macron said. But he added that France had a responsibility in how the practice of Islam had evolved in France.
“We have created our own separatism,” he said, citing the ghettoisation of some minority neighbourhoods.
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