Presently, France is going through a period of pernicious political debate, remarkably since the decapitating of teacher Samuel Paty for sharing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed with his students during a course on freedom of expression in October 2020. The government has responded to this assault with the Global Security Bill, the bill to strengthen “respect for republican principles”.
“Three things in the world deserve no mercy, hypocrisy, fraud, and tyranny.”– Frederick William Robertson
On 9th December 2020, the bill on “strengthening respect for republican principles” was presented before the Council of Ministers. It marks the French President’s intention to fight against “Islamism and Muslim separatism” and seeks to punish behaviour considered “clashing to the values of the Republic.” The Bill was approved after its first perusal by the National Assembly on 16th February 2021.
According to the government, the main aim of the bill is to “fight against online hatred,” safeguard and further secularise public services, as well as initiate obligations for lucidity in the exercise of worship. The French government is now in the process of terminating organizations and closing mosques, based on the vague notion of ‘radicalization‘. In the state of emergency, ‘radicalization’ was often used as a substitute for ‘devout Muslim’.
The French government further launched “an enormous and pioneering” wave of measures to battle what it calls religious “extremism”, targeting 76 mosques surmised of “separatism”. The Interior Minister of France, Gerald Darmanin said 76 mosques out of the more than 2,600 Muslim places of worship had been flagged as a conceivable danger to France’s Republican values.
“I will not allow anybody to claim that France, or its government, is fostering racism against Muslims,” Macron claimed in an article by The Financial Times, and this is satirical.
Macron decided to blame current incidents on “Islamist separatism” while touting that “secularism is the cement of a united France.” However, rather than affirming equal respect for all religions, France’s brand of secularism, known as “Laïcité”, has been actively weaponized to battle the so-called “Islamist separatism” that Macron condemned as the “negation of our principles, gender equality and human dignity.”
By drawing this line, France is not only hypocritical in its application of “Laïcité” by using state neutrality as a defence to attack the country’s marginalized community, notably, Muslims; but also sedulously promoting a threatful policy that will further split France and fuel radicalization.
The pessimistic use of republican symbols and conceptualization for cheap politicking is nothing new in France. The despise for headscarves, and other Muslim religious coverings first began to rear its head in 2016, when municipal officials prohibited women from wearing the burkini, a women’s swimsuit designed to provide maximal coverage, on the grounds of protecting Laïcité and preventing public disruption. Similar scepticism exists towards other non-Christian faiths. On the contrary, when a Catholic nun was told to change her religious outfit or face eviction from her retirement home in Vesoul, France, this condition was swiftly deemed a mistake and rectified, even prompting the mayor of the town to beg for the nun’s pardon.
This clear hypocrisy reaches its height in the education system, which is peculiarly bothersome, as it influences young minds. The French government has prohibited showy religious symbols from being worn inside schools. Although the ruling ostensibly applies to all religions, numerous Muslim girls could no longer wear their headscarves, while the ruling’s application to Christianity only spoke of crucifixes above a certain size. Such a religious partiality could edify children into believing that some religions are more acceptable than others and how one chooses to express their religion could be erroneous.
“If we stay at home, they say we are submissive. If we speak up and take action, they say that we are not allowed to do so.”– Pauline Bock
Amnesty International has inculpated the French government of doubling down “on their perpetual smear campaign against French Muslims” and of commencing their own “attack on freedom of expression” as a means of censoring the voice of the country’s Muslim community. Moreover, the ongoing crackdowns in France led Amnesty International to say that “The French government is not the champion of free speech that it likes to think it is.”
There is no “standard” freedom of expression, no default conduct for everybody to agree upon. The granted freedom has limits: racism, anti-Semitism, racial abhorrence, and justification of terrorism, which are not opinions; they are offences. Relatively, cultural sensitivities have always delimited and will always curb the freedom of expression. For a person to thrust their standard of freedom of expression on another is nothing more than cultural imperialism. Yet the French political class loves to insist that the French, European “way of life” is innately superior to those of non-European minorities, especially Muslims.
Nonetheless, researchers and academics have indicated that France’s housing policies, bias, and racial prejudices are extensive factors hindering the country’s ability to blend dissimilar communities.
Mudabbira Rehman is a student pursuing English in Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee