The French National Assembly on approved the controversial “anti-separatism” bill despite strong criticisms from parliamentarians from the Left and the Right. The government argued the legislation was needed to bolster France’s secular system, but critics say it breaches religious freedom.
After a seven-month debate – and the text going back and forth between France’s lower house, the National Assembly, and the Senate – the anti-separatist bill was approved by 49 votes to 19 with five abstentions.
Only three parties in the National Assembly – the ruling La République en marche (LREM) party and its two allies – voted for the law.
The adoption of the law was preceded by a motion of far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who attempted to reject it, calling it "anti-Republican" and "anti-Muslim." But his proposal was rejected with 55 against and only 12 in favor.
The far-right National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, abstained from the vote.
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The bill was originally introduced by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, and contains measures on the neutrality of the civil service, the fight against online hatred, and the protection of civil servants such as teachers.
The debate surrounding the bill was fuelled by three extremist attacks in late 2020, including the beheading in October of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed during class.
France is home to Europe's largest Muslim community and still shaken by the succession of massacres committed by Islamist militants from January 2015 that left hundreds dead.
But critics have say that the legislation works against the liberal values of the Republic that it seeks to protect.
US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback last year criticised the bill as "heavy-handed."
The bill also triggered unusually critical coverage in English-language media, even prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to write personally to the Financial Times to defend it, stating that "France is against ‘Islamist separatism’ — never Islam."
Analysts have said Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist reformer, has noticeably tacked to the right over the last months as he scents that his 2022 presidential reelection battle will come down to a run-off duel with the far-right Le Pen.