“Republican principles” bill tests French national values

Quashing radicalisation starts with attacking its social and economic root causes

Early in December 2020, France’s government tabled a new bill aimed at “reaffirming Republican principles”. Yet, despite its national-values veneer, the bill is the latest instalment of President Emmanuel Macron’s “essential battle” against “radical Islam”.

The words “radical Islam” only entered the President’s lexicon very recently. Mr Macron originally spoke of “communitarianism” in 2019, opting for the more targeted term “Islamist separatism” at the start of 2020. As the escalating gravity of Mr Macron’s language suggests, the intensity of his crackdown on “radical Islam” has been slowly building over the past couple of years. Along with the launch of France’s Plan of Action Against Radicalisation and Terrorism in February 2018, the country’s Interior Ministry experimented with a local-level jihadism-removal experiment in fifteen of its most affected areas. Then, in November 2019, the Ministry asked every regional authority to create a Departmental Committee for the Battle Against Islamism and Community Withdrawal (CLIR). These committees were tasked with instigating monthly meetings between regional authorities and community actors in order to target the country’s biggest radicalisation hotspots.

The Macron administration made these moves in the wake of numerous terror incidents committed by individuals linked to radical Islamist groups. The attacks on journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, as well as the atrocities in Paris in November of the same year, remain present in French public figures’ narrations of their country’s national memory. Similar terror incidents took place this year – most notably the killing of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in October and a similar outburst in Nice a couple of weeks later – providing French politicians with a new opportunity to situate the radicalisation issue within the context of a major national security crisis.

Enter, therefore, the “Republican principles” bill, set to be debated by France’s lower house in January 2021. In its current form, the bill proposes making state grants to religious associations conditional upon recipients signing a document acknowledging laïcité (the country’s unique policy of separating religious affairs from the public domain) and broader French Republican values. It also proposes banning home-schooling for all children between the ages of three and 16 in order to combat social isolation, except in circumstances where health reasons necessitate such an approach. Additionally, the text envisages placing an annual €10,000 limit upon foreign donations to religious organisations, with larger donations requiring state approval.

It also tables a controversial reform of Article 35 of the country’s 1905 law on the Separation of Church and State (a text to be altered with “a trembling hand” due the problems it has caused politicians in the past), by proposing to increase prison sentences for religious figures who incite citizens to “resist the execution of laws or legal acts of public authorities” from three months to two years.

This policy has received a mixed reaction from France’s top legal officials. The Conseil d’État, which advises the government on the legality of its actions, argues that whilst the measure could deter prospective radicals, it risks being heavy-handed. Very diplomatically, the Conseil questioned whether making seditious claims “in or near a place of worship justifies that [their] perpetrator, whoever they may be, should be punished more severely”. It points out that Article 24 of the 1881 law on Press Freedom already forbids seditious acts in any context.

Additionally, the government seeks to place heavier restrictions upon the activities of private associations through the bill, criminalising any “machinations carried out by [an association’s] members and [which are] linked directly to the activities of the association”. Such powers may indeed prove useful for combatting radicalisation. But the fact that the bill would grant French authorities the power to shut down private associations “in case of emergency” is concerning. Amnesty International argues that some of the bill’s proposals “threaten the freedom of association”.

In spite of these observations, France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, maintains that the bill is ultimately “a law of liberty, […] a law of protection, […] a law of emancipation in the face of religious fundamentalism”. Mr Castex has made clear his belief that “security is the absolute guarantee of liberty”. The argument that individual liberties should be restricted in order to achieve a form of wider security, however, can appear to be contradictory. Yet before evaluating this plausible argument, the bill must be viewed within the context of the Republican values of liberté, égalité and fraternité (freedom, equality and brotherhood) which lie at the centre of French society.

One of the French government’s central justifications for the bill is that it reinforces laïcité. Laïcité, itself based upon the Republican-values triad, mandates that one’s religious affiliations be kept separate from the public sphere. The policy is centred upon the core assumption that equality in the public sphere enables the free expression of every individual. France’s constitution enshrines the Revolutionary-era Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, which rejects any authority above rational human beings – therefore including a supreme being – asserting that the state is accountable to citizens only. President Macron reiterated this on a visit to Mulhouse in February 2020, saying that “We must never accept a situation whereby the laws of religion can become more important than the laws of the Republic.”

Yet, as explained in a previous article on this blog, efforts to uphold the confessional liberty of individuals can, in some cases, result in an attempt to achieve so much equality that individual liberties lack substance. The argument that belief systems be controlled so heavily in return for greater social emancipation can be tricky to stomach, especially for some non-French citizens who view it as unacceptably restrictive. For a majority of French citizens, however, laïcité is an integral part of the French Republic, and something which strengthens liberty. According to a poll published by Ipsos in February 2019, around 84 percent of citizens believe that laïcité is one value among several which “plays an important role in bringing French people together”. Therefore, aside from Mr Castex’s argument that meeting national security objectives requires citizens to make sacrifices, it is perhaps this unique national attachment to laïcité that makes some of the more restrictive proposals of the “Republican principles” bill more “acceptable” to French citizens. It is also interesting to note that whilst French citizens are known to take to the streets regularly in protest, few have done so over the new bill.

Nonetheless, there are grounds to suggest that laïcité and “Republican principles” have been politicised by the French government in order to give the new bill additional legitimacy. The Conseil d’État has already explored this idea, noting that the government ought to “make the overall political inspiration behind [the bill] more explicit.” A nationalist, security-oriented and multiculturalism-sceptic approach such as that visible in the bill’s more contentious articles is popular with the centrist, centre-right and far-right voters whose support Macron needs to win the 2022 presidential election (see two other blog articles on laïcité and police powers). A recent opinion poll carried out by Via Voice on behalf of La République en Marche (LREM), the party of President Macron, shows that citizens appear to be as concerned about “radical Islam” as politicians are; 88 percent of French people are said to be “concerned” by radical Islamism, with 58 percent said to be “very concerned”.

It must be for this reason that a more overtly “political” approach towards thwarting radical Islamism is high on the agenda of many French politicians. But whilst a cosmetically “political” solution to radicalisation could pay dividends for Mr Macron as he approaches the presidential election, there is lacking evidence to suggest that a plan which focuses instead upon eliminating the social and economic disparities driving a tiny minority towards radical Islamism wouldn’t be effective.

The Islamist Radicalisation Committee of the French Senate published a report in July 2020 which criticised what it saw as the “exclusively social and economic” anti-radicalisation approach of recent years. It called instead for more “political” measures. These claims lack analytical strength, however. The aforementioned surveillance-oriented anti-radicalisation experiment of 2018 resulted in the closure of 183 bars, places of worship, schools and cultural and social institutions. Yet despite the rapporteurs’ argument that existing approaches – which must naturally include the 2018 experiment – place inordinate weight upon social and economic factors, almost no data relating to the long-term impact of the experiment’s closures exists. In fairness, the committee was aware of this, stating that figures relating to the 2018 initiative were “not sufficient for establishing […] the efficacy of the mechanism”. (Incidentally, no comprehensive analysis of the government’s regional CLIR strategy of 2019 has been undertaken either, even though the Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalisation (CIPDR) is supposed to receive data regularly.) Yet the committee could instead have investigated whether the 2018 closures led to the dissolution of groups of radicals or whether they inspired individuals to seek new social and employment opportunities before calling for a more intensely “political” approach.

Viewed from this perspective, the Senate committee lacks some of the crucial evidence needed to suggest that a social and economic approach is problematic. Moreover, the committee’s argumentative weaknesses beg the broader question of whether existing anti-radicalisation approaches have themselves ever been as “exclusively social and economic” as it argues. The initiative of 2018 may itself have been too “political”. Whilst the Committee noted that the experiment “clearly demonstrate[d] the action of state authorities”, and that a local-level strategy brought some positives, it appears that it only generated increased “warning about acts of terrorism”. This may signify that authorities have not given a fair enough chance to the “exclusively social and economic” approach that it criticises. The French government ought, therefore, to work on uprooting the socioeconomic structures which cause the deviance identified during surveillance operations.

The President and his supporters frequently use the buzzwords “communitarian withdrawal” and “separatism” when speaking of radicalisation. Yet existing strategies may place too much emphasis upon surveillance and fail to attack the social and economic structures which contribute to such states of being. Mr Macron is evidently aware of the need for solutions which nurse the root causes of radicalisation, saying in a recent interview that “Evil is inside us. […] This [Islamist] ideology thrives upon our failures, […] the failure of French integration”. The Senate committee even acknowledges this itself in the summary of its findings, stating that “Mistakes have been made by successive governments by grouping populations which are economically fragile and from the same geographical origins in particular areas.”

Perhaps the French government ought to channel more energy into improving the social and economic circumstances of those at risk of involvement with radicalisation. For example, the Departmental Monitoring Committee for the Prevention of Radicalisation and the Assistance of Families (CPRAF) has already provided support to at least 2,600 young people and 800 families involved with radicalisation, according to a 2019 report by the European Radicalisation Awareness Network.

Some of the French government’s efforts to reduce “separatism” have had a visible socioeconomic dimension, as demonstrated by President Macron during a speech in October 2020. In Les Mureaux, a working-class district near Paris, Mr Macron announced plans to open 40 new educational hubs for young people between the ages of three and 25, on top of 80 others already opened during his presidency. He also plans to open 300 extra France Services centres, which are designed to make it easier for people to gain state support. Additionally, Mr Macron made reference to the €10 billion he has already pledged for France’s National Agency for Urban Renovation (ANRU), which deals with life in France’s working-class quartiers populaires. Nevertheless, there remains significant work to be done to raise the quality of life for people living in the country’s banlieues [outskirts areas], many of which contain high levels of social and economic disparity. The famous Borloo report of 2018 proposed €48 billion of measures to improve these areas, yet Mr Macron rejected many of the ideas (see this article on the Borloo report).

National values have been placed ast the centre of the “Republican principles” bill. A nationalist and security-focused approach may well improve Mr Macron’s standing as he heads towards the 2022 presidential election. Yet the bill risks being a poisoned chalice which is ineffective when it comes to making genuine improvements in the context of national integration. Such improvements ought to take place instead in social and economic domains. “Separatism” works in two ways, the first being where citizens drift away from the Republic, and the second where the Republic drifts away from citizens. To be absolutely clear, those responsible for recent horrific acts of terror are of course individual perpetrators themselves – not the Republic. However, as France battles with such a pressing political issue, its historically interventionist État should give those at risk of becoming involved with radical religion a leg up. Socially and economically focused strategies directly involving local people and communities would ensure that anti-radicalisation efforts are tangible expressions of liberté, égalité and fraternité – not just nationalistic narrations thereof.

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