PARIS — The French capital is a hive of activity. Following a series of attacks that have heightened fears of terrorism and Islamist extremism ahead of next year’s presidential election, French lawmakers have approved two bills that the government claims will improve the country’s ability to combat terrorism and Islamist extremism.
Despite the fact that the bills, which were passed on Thursday and Friday, had been pushed out of the spotlight by a resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic, critics contend that they curtail civil liberties and expand police powers to an alarming degree.
One of the new laws gives France’s security services more tools to track down suspected terrorists and monitor them online. The National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, approved the law late Thursday night by a vote of 108 to 20.
In the other bill, which was passed on Friday by the same chamber by a vote of 49 to 19, the goal is to combat extremist ideas at all levels of French society. It takes a number of steps, including toughening the conditions for homeschooling, tightening the rules for nonprofit organisations seeking state funding, and giving the authorities new authority to close places of worship that are perceived to be condoning hateful or violent ideas.
French President Emmanuel Macron and his government had advocated for both measures, arguing that they were necessary in the face of a persistent threat posed by Islamist extremism to France’s ideals, particularly secularism, and its national security.
“We are arming ourselves with the tools necessary to combat those who use religion to undermine the values of the Republic,” said Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, in a tweet.
Individuals identified as Islamist extremists have killed a police officer, killed three people at a basilica in Nice, and decapitated a schoolteacher near Paris who had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class discussion on free expression in the previous year. As recently as this week, the government issued an order to all law enforcement agencies throughout the country to be on high alert after Al Qaeda released a video threatening France over the cartoons..
Both laws are criticised as being insufficient by opponents on the right, where politicians vying for a spot on the ballot in next year’s elections have made security a key issue of contention. Human rights organisations and critics on the left have criticised the measures, claiming that they are excessive and that Mr. Macron’s government is shifting toward more repressive policies.
Amnesty International’s Anne-Sophie Simpere said that the anti-terrorism law, like others before it, was “too broad and too vague,” raising concerns that it could be interpreted incorrectly.
The government’s argument that these restrictive measures were used in a reasonable manner, she explained, is frequently used. Regardless of which government is in power, these tools will be around for a long time, and there is a great deal of latitude for interpretation.”
The legislation against Islamist extremism had been fiercely debated in Parliament over the previous few months, particularly in the Senate, which is dominated by conservatives.
A flurry of amendments, many of which critics claimed were anti-Muslim or xenophobic in nature, were voted on by lawmakers, but none of them were included in the final version of the bill. Among the proposals was a ban on the wearing of veils by parents accompanying their children on school outings.
The antiterrorism law codifies and expands measures that were first implemented on an experimental basis as part of a comprehensive counterterrorism bill passed in 2017. This law, among other things, gives the security services the authority to monitor and restrict the movements of people who have been imprisoned for terrorism for an extended period of time after they have been freed. In addition, the law allows the security services to use computer algorithms to detect potential suspects by automatically processing data from phones and web addresses, according to the law.
The law on Islamist extremism is comprehensive, containing a slew of measures designed to root out what the French government considers to be the sources of extremism in every corner of the country’s social fabric. As opposed to this, some critics, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, claim that the measures are a cover for “anti-Muslim” bias.
In addition to making it mandatory for parents to seek state authorization for homeschooling — previously, parents were only required to officially declare their intentions — the law also restricts the reasons that would be sufficient to justify such an authorization.
The practise of educating children at home, which is not widespread in France, is viewed as a potential source of “separatism,” which the government believes undermines French values. For example, the government claims that it provides conservative Muslim families with a way to keep their children out of public schools.
The law also extends strict religious neutrality obligations beyond civil servants to anyone who is a private contractor of a public service, such as bus drivers, who is subject to the same requirements. A commitment to “respect the principles and values of the Republic” is required of associations seeking state subsidies under this provision.. In addition, it prohibits health professionals from issuing “virginity certificates” prior to religious marriages in certain circumstances.
After the decapitation of a schoolteacher — who was killed after videos criticising him were widely circulated on social media — a new law was passed that makes it illegal to publish someone’s private information online if there is a clear intent to put them in danger.
A new crime of “separatism” is also created by the law, with penalties of up to five years in jail and fines of up to 70,000 euros ($88,000) levied against anyone who threatens or assaults an elected official or civil servant because they do not want to follow the rules governing French public services — for example, someone who becomes violent at a public hospital because they do not want to be examined by a female doctor.
The French Constitutional Council has already warned that some legislators will file a motion to verify that the new measures comply with the French Constitution, raising the possibility that some of them will be struck down. For example, key provisions of another security law passed in April were struck down the following month, resulting in the government having to introduce yet another piece of legislation.