Separatism: Bringing Islam and France’s Muslims to Heel

President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation on Friday 2 October with a speech on “separatism”. His initiative was preceded by a political and media campaign aimed effectively at criminalising Islam and the Muslims. This trend was illustrated by a report published by the Senate in July 2020.

Paris, 2016. Street art by Zag and Sia, based on “La Liberté guidant le peuple” by Eugène Delacroix
Joël Saget/AFP

Is it possible to maintain an authoritarian discourse on the “values of the Republic,” demanding absolute respect for them by one and all, while paying little heed to those values oneself? That was the dilemma facing Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio, senator (the Republicans) and former mayor of Saint-Gratien in the Val-d’Oise. In 2011, she refused permission for the Franco-Muslim Association of Saint-Gratien to use a meeting room for a few hours on several days during Ramadhan. Brought before the administrative courts, Eustache-Brinio was deemed to have committed “a serious and clearly illegal violation of the right to freedom of assembly and worship,” according to ruling no. 352106 by the Council of State on 26 August 2011.

Senator vs. The 1905 law

Administrative jurisprudence in fact considers the freedoms of assembly and worship as fundamental freedoms. Freedom of worship is enshrined in the first article of the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State. In other words, when a municipal worthy breaches the freedom of worship, he is violating the 1905 law and thus the famous “values of the Republic.” It is, to say the least, surprising, coming from an elected official who defends “secularism” tooth and nail.

Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio was the rapporteur of a Senate commission of enquiry into “the response of the public authorities to the development of Islamist radicalisation and ways of combatting it.” The commission was set up in November 2019 after the knife attack at the Paris police headquarters on 3 October 2019 by one of its own personnel.

For several months, she tracked the slightest manifestations of the Muslim religious presence in all spheres of society—school, education, sport, places of worship. The final report issued on 7 July 2020 may have taken care to state that Islam and the Muslims, and the peaceful pursuit of their faith, were not targeted, but the subtext of the report gave the impression that any visible manifestation of Islam displeased the senators. They wrote: “This religious renewal [of Islam] is for some people accompanied by a desire for affirmation of their faith in the public space, at work, at school, and for recognition by institutions and public services, which conflicts with the laws of the Republic and with secularism.”

This is an astonishing statement. The law does not in fact prohibit affirmations of faith in public, as long as they do not disturb public order. The suggestion that laws of the Republic were being flouted is equally troubling: no specific legal regulation can be shown to have been flouted by these visible manifestations of Islam.

The report—and indeed a number of stands evinced in public—is replete with empty references to “laws, rules or values of the Republic,” with the oft-repeated claim that Muslims would be in contravention if they rejected equality of the sexes, demanded halal dishes in the canteen or put themselves forward on electoral lists (the report denounces “intrusion on electoral lists,” although contesting elections is a democratic act as well as a demonstration of integration). Such references are devoid of any substance, because no legal text is ever cited as being actually violated by one kind of behaviour or another.

The Senate commission of enquiry initially referred only to “Islamist radicalisation,” but ended up adopting the term “separatism,” probably under the influence of the President of the Republic. In his speech at Mulhouse on 18 February 2020, Emmanuel Macron in fact expressed his feeling that “there are some parts of the Republic which want to separate from the rest,” denouncing “the desire to stop respecting the law … in the name of a religion.” So it was in light of this “Islamist separatism” that the Senate Commission was to continue its hearings and its work, arriving at the conclusion that “the development of an ‘Islamist separatism’ in the territories of the Republic has gathered pace in the last 20 years.”

Defending the Arab dictatorships

The senators thus believed they were updating the “Salafi revolution of the 1990s” alongside an “Islamisation of French society.” They even seemed to lament the fact that the “Islamists” have not been repressed in France as they were in the Arab countries. “While the Arab countries engaged in a campaign of repression against the Islamists, be it the regime of Ben Ali in Tunisia or the army in Algeria, by contrast France and Britain, for example, chose to welcome the Islamists onto their soil.”

It is astounding that these sticklers for the “values of the Republic” should be envious of the repression of the Islamists in Algeria or Tunisia: the violation of human rights—values of the Republic if ever there were—committed during this repression has been widely documented.

Next the report tries to make a typology of a “militant Islam” prospering in an “Islamist ecosystem” whose emergence has been facilitated by Islam’s wealth in France: “Capable of raising the necessary capital for these [mosque] constructions, Islam is, contrary to the general impression, a ‘rich’ religion, with profitable ‘commercial activities’ such as the hajj, the repatriation of the deceased, and the halal system.”

In the end, reading the report leaves the impression that there is a necessary but implicit link between apparently unexceptional Islamic activities—the halal system, building mosques, etc.—and radical movements from the tabligh through the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish Millî Görüs to the jihadists.

So the analysis of Islam advanced by the senators ends up as an amalgam of received ideas on the Muslims sprinkled with academic political reflections on supposedly militant movements, leaving the bizarre feeling that there is a unity between these diverse elements. The conclusion thus comes naturally: for the senators, it is a question of combatting in every nook and cranny of society any manifestation of Islam which might lead to what is considered a form of radicalisation.

Counterterrorism … and fraud in public transport!

The senators present 44 proposals which might turn up in the draft law against Islamist separatism promised by the government for the coming months. It is not worth going through them in detail here, but it should be noted that some of these proposals tend to reinforce the powers of the intelligence services and an extension of the logic of suspicion, while putting a blind faith in the intelligence police.

This movement is not new and could be seen in action several years ago. In 2015, the socialist deputy Gilles Savary put forward a bill whose aim was to combat terrorism and fraud on public transport at the same time. The proposal became [the law of 22 March 2016—>] on preventing and combatting anti-social behaviour, breaches of public security and acts of terrorism on public transport.

It created an unprecedented system for vetting people applying for certain specific jobs in the transport sector, such as metro or train drivers. Anyone seeking such a post would now be the subject of an administrative investigation led by the Interior Ministry’s National Administrative Security Investigation Service (SNEAS), whose powers were unfortunately expanded.

The SNEAS thus carries out an investigation of the job-seeker, in conditions of complete secrecy, and simply provides a conclusion, positive or negative, on his recruitment as a metro driver, while he is left in the dark about the reasons for the police considering him dangerous and thus unsuitable for such a job. So the Paris transport authority (RATP) and the national railways (SNCF) refuse to take on a candidate who has been given the thumbs-down by the police. What is deeply shocking about such a system is that it gives executive power to police suspicions which are neither substantiated nor challenged, although at the moment the administrative jurisdictions seem to be [disputing this mechanism—>].

Religious police

The senatorial report of 2020 proposes to broaden the scope of these administrative “security” investigations to include recruitment for jobs deemed sensitive, relating to minors, such as teachers, organisers and educators (proposal No. 17) but also to extend the authority of the SNEAS to cover people organising reception centres for minors (proposal No. 30).

If these proposals were written into law, the SNEAS police would be empowered to scrutinise their files minutely and to investigate every teacher in the land, but also all the organisers and anybody connected to minors, which could end up meaning millions of people. But above all, decisions turning down such and such a person on grounds of risk, of inappropriate behaviour or of radicalism would not be based on any explicit reasoning. All it would need for an individual to be barred from working in a school or a holiday camp would be for the SNEAS to give the thumbs-down, for unknown reasons.

So the senators are dreaming of giving arbitrary powers, a carte blanche, to the intelligence police, allowing them to say who is too Muslim, or nearly radicalised, or who spends too much time in such-and-such a mosque, or whose clothes are not “republican” enough, so that the people targeted by this moral police—this religious police—should be excluded from their profession and therefore, often, from society.

In the name of republican values and the fight against separatism, the senators have pulled out all the stops to propose measures which frontally contradict the fundamentals of the Republic, and which would have the effect of helping to divide society.