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Here's all you need to know about France's controversial separatism law

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By Alice Tidey
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (L) on Oct. 20, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (L) on Oct. 20, 2020.   -   Copyright  Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP

France's controversial bill against separatism, which plans to crack down on online hate speech and foreign funding of religious groups, was approved by MPs on Tuesday, February 16.

Officially named the draft bill "reinforcing republican principles", the legislation aims to give the country the means to fight Islamic radicalism but has been criticised for stigmatising the Muslim community.

It has led to misinformation and anti-French protests in the Muslim world.

"This legislation is not legislation against religions, nor against the Muslim religion in particular. It is a law of emancipation in the face of religious fanaticism," Prime Minister Jean Castex stressed after it was presented to ministers in December.

It is now set to be examined by senators on March 30.

What's the background?

In his very first days at the Elysee Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to outline his thoughts on secularism and Islam in a vast speech.

It took more than three years for it to happen with the much-awaited address eventually taking place in October — a week after a teacher was brutally killed for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on freedom of expression.

Macron said during his speech that "Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world", adding that there was a need to "free Islam in France from foreign influences".

Among the plans he outlined to strengthen the country's secularism and fight against separatism, he vowed to end a system allowing imams to train overseas, reduce homeschooling, and take control of religious funding, with any associations that applied to receive subsidies obliged to sign a contract saying it respected "the Republic's values".

His comments sparked a boycott of French products in several Muslim countries followed by sometimes-violent protests during which the French flag and pictures of Macron were set on fire.

What will the law actually contain?

Homeschooling

The government initially planned to make schooling mandatory for children from three years old and to all but ban home-schooling, except for medical reasons. It argued that a lot of Muslim children, especially girls, were being sent to radical schools where, according to Macron, "their education consists of prayers and certain classes".

"Schools must first and foremost instil the values of the Republic and not those of a religion, and educate citizens, not worshippers," he added.

The government has backed down slightly on homeschooling by allowing the practice to continue more or less in the same way but parents will now to be expected to ask the authorities for approval and may be refused.

"In a number of cases, it (homeschooling) conceals clandestine Salafist structures. We want to face up to this sociological reality. That's why we will set up a homeschooling authorisation system," education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer explained.

"Exceptions to allow homeschooling must be in accordance with the rights of the child," he went on and include for instance health reasons, the practise of intensive sportive or artistic activity, the family's nomad lifestyle, or any other special circumstances.

Each homeschooled child will also be given a national identification number — which is already provided to every pupil in formal schooling — to allow authorities to ensure they are being provided with an education.

Online hate speech

The legislation plans to create a new crime. The act of disseminating information about someone's private, family or professional life that makes them identifiable with the aim of endangering their lives will now be punishable by three years in jail and a fine of up to €45,000.

The sanction is to be tougher if it is committed "to the detriment of a person holding public authority or entrusted with a public service mission," according to a preliminary text from mid-November.

Oversight of religious practices

Religious groups will have to declare any donations from abroad worth over €10,000 — the aim is to weaken foreign influence on places of worship.

Local authorities are also expected to be given the power to temporarily shut down any place of worship "in which the remarks that are made, the ideas or theories that are disseminated or the activities that take place: cause discrimination, hatred or violence" against a person or groups because of their race, ethnic group, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender.

Oversight of associations

The government also wants to give itself greater power to intervene against associations. Any such groups that apply for state subsidies will be asked to sign a contract respecting the Republic's values.

If they are found to be in breach of this contract, they will be forced to give back any funds received.

Marlene Schiappa, secretary of state for gender equality, said the measure meant to ensure that not "one euro of public money is given to the enemies of the Republic".

Consultations are to be held in the coming weeks with local officials and with representatives of associations to write the contract on the Republic's values.

The government also wants to "attribute to an association ... acts committed by its members and directly related to the activities of that association" and to temporarily halt the group's activities.

Dignity

A large part of the legislation also aims to crack down on any behaviour that violates the "dignity" of people, especially women.

As such, medical practitioners would now be banned from delivering so-called "virginity certificates", a pre-requisite often asked of women prior to a forced marriage. The law also strengthens the state's arsenal against forced marriages and polygamy.

NGOs can now contact local officials directly if they have strong suspicions a woman may be being forced into a forced marriage with authorities now able to demand to speak to the couple separately to ensure no pressure is being exerted.

Any person in France on a residency permit may have it revoked if they are found to be in a polygamous situation. Schiappa emphasised this does not concern polyamory but that marriage, by law, offered certain benefits such as pension rights, which women may be stripped off if they are one of several wives.

Finally, the government wants to prevent girls from being disowned in favour of boys for religious beliefs.

Secularism

Any person or entity, including contracted private companies representing the state or providing a state service, will be obliged to "ensure respect for the principles of secularism and neutrality of public service".

In practice, this means for instance that public swimming pool will now be barred from having segregated swimming times for women and men on religious grounds.

Any attempt to intimidate a public service representative into granting an exemption or partial exemption of these rules based on religious beliefs is to be punished with five years in jail and a €75,000 fine.

What is next?

The law passed its first parliamentary hurdle on February 16 and MPs backing it with 347 votes in favour, 151 votes against and 65 abstentions.

Senators will start to examine it on March 30.

It comes at a tricky time for the government, which is also fielding accusations of clamping down on press freedom with its security bill. The proposed legislation aims to make it illegal to share with "malicious intent" images of police officers in which they are recognisable.

But law enforcement has also criticised the government after Macron announced the creation of an online platform to flag police discrimination.