PARIS – Lawmakers in the French parliament's lower house on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would strengthen oversight of mosques, schools and sports clubs to safeguard France from radical Islamists and to promote respect for French values - one of President Emmanuel Macron's landmark projects.
After two weeks of intense debate, the vote in the National Assembly house was the first critical hurdle for the legislation that has been long in the making. The bill passed 347-151, with 65 abstentions.
With France bloodied by terror attacks, having hundreds of citizens who went to Syria in years past and thousands of French troops now fighting extremists in Mali, few disagree that radicalization is a danger. But critics also see the proposed law as a political ploy to lure the right wing to Macron's centrist party ahead of next year's presidential election.
The wide-ranging bill, titled “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic,” covers most aspects of French life. It has been hotly contested by some Muslims, lawmakers and others who fear the state is intruding on essential freedoms and pointing a finger at Islam, the nation's No. 2 religion.
But the legislation breezed through a chamber in which Macron's party has a majority. It is not set to go to the conservative-controlled Senate until March 30, but final passage is seen as all but assured.
The bill gained added urgency after a teacher was beheaded outside Paris in October and three people were killed during a knife attack at a Nice basilica the same month.
A section that makes it a crime to knowingly endanger the life of a person by providing details of their private life and location is known as the ‘’Paty law." It was named for Samuel Paty, the teacher who was killed outside his school after information about where he taught was posted online in a video.
The bill bolsters other French efforts to fight extremism, mainly security-based.
Detractors say the measures are already covered in current laws. Some voice suspicions about a hidden political agenda.
Days before Tuesday's vote, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin - the bill's main sponsor - accused far-right leader Marine Le Pen during a nationally televised debate of being “soft" on radical Islam, saying she needs to take vitamins.
The remark was intended to portray the government as tougher than the far-right in tackling Islamic extremists. But Le Pen criticized the bill as too weak and offered what she called her own, tougher counter-proposal. Le Pen, who has declared her presidential candidacy for the 2022 election, lost in the 2017 runoff against Macron.
Jordan Bardella, vice president of Le Pen's National Rally party. said on BFM TV that the legislation approved Tuesday “misses its target” because it doesn’t attack radical Islamist ideology head-on, .
The bill mentions neither Muslims nor Islam by name. Supporters say it is aimed at snuffing out what the government describes as an encroaching fundamentalism that is subverting French values, notably the nation's foundational value of secularism and gender equality.
The measure has been dubbed the "separatism" bill, a term used by Macron to refer to radicals who would create a “counter society” in France.
Top representatives of all religions were consulted as the text was drafted. The government's leading Muslim conduit, the French Council for the Muslim Faith, gave its backing.
Ghaleb Bencheikh, head of the Foundation for Islam of France, a secular body seeking a progressive Islam, said in a recent interview that the planned law was “unjust but necessary” to fight radicalization.
Among other provisions, the bill would ban virginity certificates and crack down on polygamy and forced marriage, practices not formally attached to a religion. Critics say those and other provisions are already covered in existing laws.
It would also ensure that children attend regular school starting at age 3, a way to target home schools where ideology is taught, and provide for training all public employees in secularism. Anyone who threatens a public employee risks a prison sentence. In another reference to Paty, the slain teacher, the bill obligates the bosses of a public employee who has been threatened to take action, if the employee agrees.
The bill introduces mechanisms to guarantee that mosques and associations that run them are not under the sway of foreign interests or homegrown Salafists with a rigorous interpretation of Islam.
Associations must sign a contract of respect for French values and pay back state funds, if they cross a line. Police officers and prison employees must take an oath swearing to respect the nation’s values and the constitution,
To accommodate changes, the bill adjusts France's 1905 law guaranteeing separation of church and state.
Some Muslims said they sensed a climate of suspicion.
“There's confusion... A Muslim is a Muslim and that's all,” taxi driver Bahri Ayari said after worshipping at midday prayers at the Grand Mosque of Paris.
“We talk about radicals, about I don't know what," he said. “There is a book. There is a prophet. The prophet has taught us.”
As for convicted radicals, he said, their crimes "get put on the back of Islam. That's not what a Muslim is.”
Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.