A draft law being debated in the French Senate this week aimed at strengthening the country and stamping out extremism has unwittingly revealed just how divided the country is.
Proponents of the controversial bill put forward by President Emmanuel Macron’s government say it is simply intended to reinforce the nation’s “republican values” — liberty, equality and fraternity.
France defends state neutrality through its distinct secularist model known as “laïcité.” To crack down on extremist tendencies in the wake of a slew of terrorist attacks, the legislation would require community groups to sign a charter on those national principles and cap the funding the groups receive from abroad.
“What the French government right now is trying to tackle is what they see and what a majority of the French population sees as rising radicalism in certain neighborhoods,” said Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council think tank.
“It's obvious that some of that conversation is being hijacked by populist movements,” he said, noting that Macron’s moves have been criticized not only for pandering to right-wing voters, but also for being too soft on radicalism.
Macron — who faces a threat from the far right ahead of the presidential election next year — has used the bill to stymie divisive rhetoric. He persuaded the leaders of the French Council of the Muslim Faith to draw up a charter of principles that backs the country’s secular values, paving the way for acceptance of the measure.
Other experts say they are concerned about the ramifications of the legislation.
Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar at Toulouse Capitole University, has characterized the bill as an “attack” on civil liberties, pointing to provisions that she said would allow the government to infringe on basic human rights.
“I see a blatant attack on freedom of association. This bill has no safeguards of potential abuse from public authorities,” she said.
‘Our own form of separatism’
Since the country experienced a rise in Islamist terrorist attacks in the 1990s, it has become something of a tradition for politicians to try to regulate the nation’s roughly 5 million Muslims — the largest population in Europe.
The deadly attacks over the past few years have only intensified the sense among many that Muslims and Islamic institutions need to be monitored, restrained and otherwise brought into the mainstream of French society.
In a landmark speech Oct. 2, Macron said the French state had had a role in allowing extremism to spread.
“We have created our own form of separatism,” he said, referring to France’s “banlieues” — working-class suburbs that have been plagued for years by low income and high unemployment and which have been branded in the French media as breeding grounds for extremism.
That a child of one of those neighborhoods voted for the bill in its draft state is a sign of how divided France can be.
National Assembly member Anissa Khedher said she supported the bill when it was introduced this year because it supports secularism and tackles radicalization.
For her, the media frenzy and the political commentary have distracted people from the measure’s intended use.
“Many people in France and abroad have tried to vilify and twist this bill. This law is not against Islam or about Islam,” said Khedher, who is of Tunisian descent and represents nearly 130,000 people.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
But for some, Macron’s focus on Islamic radicalization has reinforced negative religious stereotypes, dividing French Muslims over the bill and their relationship with their nation.
“In France, a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim,” Alouane said.
Comments by some senior ministers have also inflamed the debate. The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, for example, said he was “shocked” that there were aisles dedicated to halal and kosher products in supermarkets.
‘Islam is not in crisis’
It only takes looking within one family to learn that French Muslims are by no means a monolith.
Hajjar Aboulharjan, 20, a university student who lives in a Parisian banlieue, said Macron’s comments about her faith were “unacceptable.”
“Islam is not in crisis. Radical people are in crisis,” she said, referring to Macron's calling for an “enlightenment” in Islam after saying the religion is in “a crisis all over the world.”
Abdellah Aboulharjan, 46, her uncle, disagreed, praising Macron’s “very balanced” approach in tackling rising radicalization, adding that he does not “feel oppressed.”
The draft law would broaden the government’s powers to close places of worship that have ties to foreign funding and preach extremist ideologies. Darmanin recently announced that 89 mosques were “suspected of separatism.”
The actions have prompted protests from civil rights and anti-racism groups across major cities.
Although the bill does not single out any one religion, certain initiatives, such as cracking down on the use of virginity certificates in forced marriages and creating a training program for French imams, leave little room for the imagination.
“There is no doubt — and everyone knows there is no doubt — that it is aimed at radical, anti-Western Islamic movements,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory firm.
Ameur Zerrouki, a French student of Algerian descent, said, “I don't know why the criminal events by such a small minority make so much noise, but when your religion is constantly debated or criticized, you really don't know where to sit.
“France has this beautiful idea that anybody can become French. But often people are always questioning my ‘Frenchship’ because of my other identities,” he added. “I think we're really losing this sense of what France is supposed to be.”