The varied reactions from French Muslims to President Emmanuel Macron’s planned law to curb radical Islamism and strengthen the powers of the secular state have underlined the political minefield faced by governments tackling religious extremism.
Some Muslims in France have expressed outrage at what they view as an increasingly hardline strategy, echoing the accusations of Islamophobia made by the leaders of Turkey and Pakistan, while others have voiced wholehearted support for the president.
Between these two extremes, some of France’s estimated 5.7m citizens from Muslim backgrounds — the largest such minority in western Europe — are uneasy about increased tensions over recent Islamist terror attacks and the radicalisation of young people whose parents or grandparents immigrated from former French colonies in the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa.
Nagib Azergui, who heads a small political party he founded eight years ago called the Union of French Muslim Democrats, is one of Mr Macron’s harshest critics. “We are really second-class citizens, enemies of the interior ministry,” he said. “Islamophobia is exploding in our country.”
Mr Azergui said Mr Macron’s draft law “to protect the principles of the republic” was part of a “witch-hunt” that has also included closing mosques and shutting clandestine or unregistered schools. “They are flagging anyone who is a practising Muslim as a potential terrorist in France.”
The new legislation, which has yet to be debated in the National Assembly and does not mention specific religious groups, bans “virginity certificates”, curbs home schooling, outlaws gender segregation in public swimming pools and protects public servants from online hate speech — a measure introduced after teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded on the street outside his school in October by a young Islamist enraged that he had used caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on freedom of speech.
For Mr Azergui, the law is an example of “Islamo-diversion”, of a government attacking Muslims to hide its incompetence, while the mention of virginity certificates is an insulting cliché. “The Muslim community doesn’t do this kind of tribal stuff any more,” he said. “It’s not the reality of French society.”
Fatiha Agag-Boudjahlat, a teacher in Toulouse whose forebears migrated from Algeria, takes exactly the opposite view, welcoming the law, rejecting the Muslim “patriarchy” and criticising Americans and other westerners who espouse “identity politics” and see France’s minority Muslims as victims of an overbearing secular state under Mr Macron.
“As a daughter of immigrants, I’m very happy to be treated as a citizen, not as a Muslim,” she said. “I want to have access to the same emancipation as white women . . . We are not identities, we are people. I don’t have a ‘Muslim’ brain or a ‘Muslim’ womb.”
She added: “I think this is the most ambitious draft legislation since the 2010 law banning face-coverings in the street . . . At last we are standing up to Islamists, and Anglo-Saxons [from abroad]. France is attacked on both fronts.”
Mr Macron and his government have made much of what they say is the Islamist influence in 15 districts across France that have been identified since 2018 as zones of “republican reconquest”.
Hassen Chalghoumi, a moderate imam from Drancy, north-east of Paris, who supports Mr Macron and has campaigned against anti-Semitism among Muslims, is in no doubt about the dangers of extremism and “no-go areas” where radicals hold sway. He has been repeatedly threatened with death over social media, is protected by government bodyguards 24 hours a day and says he sometimes wears a bulletproof vest when he preaches.
“This law is not against Muslims, but against Islamists,” he said. “If the government doesn’t respond like this, we’ll head towards civil war. There is a rise of hate and racism.”
The law’s opponents, however, insist that the government either misunderstands or deliberately misrepresents the problem by equating religious devotion with violent extremism.
“We need to understand that we have a common enemy — Islamists and terrorists,” said Mr Azergui. “All these people who turned to terrorism didn’t go to the mosques. These are people really on the margins of society.”
Tareq Oubrou, a Moroccan-born imam from Bordeaux who once adhered to the puritanical tenets of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood but has since adopted more moderate views, said the way Muslims lived and worshipped in France tended to separate them from the rest of society and exposed them to the risk of radicalisation.
Muslims — a disparate community in France that includes Moroccans, Algerians, Turks, sub-Saharan Africans, Islamists and radical secularists — felt vulnerable and “stigmatised”, he added.
There are some areas where the analyses of the authorities and Muslim leaders converge. They agree, for example, that prisons and detention centres have been a dangerous breeding ground for the radicalisation of young Muslims, as they have in other countries. And there is a consensus that the latest generation of people of Muslim immigrant origin feel increasingly alienated from the French customs adopted by their parents and grandparents.
According to an Ifop opinion poll in October, 57 per cent of French Muslims under 25 think sharia law is more important than the law of the French republic — a 10 percentage-point increase from four years ago.
“There is a bigotry, a religious orthodoxy that’s on the rise in the new generation,” said Ms Agag-Boudjahlat.