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France defends law combatting 'pernicious' Islamist radicalism

President Emmanuel Macron has pushed the legislation - which would tighten rules on issues ranging from religious-based education to polygamy - after a spate of attacks blamed on extremists.

Pakistani Sunni Muslims burn a French flag during a protest in Karachi on 30 October 2020, following French President Emmanuel Macron's comments over the Prophet Muhammad caricatures. Picture: AFP

PARIS - The French government defended draft legislation clamping down on Islamist radicalism on Wednesday as a "law of freedom" after a torrent of criticism from Muslim countries and expressions of concern from the US.

President Emmanuel Macron has pushed the legislation - which would tighten rules on issues ranging from religious-based education to polygamy - after a spate of attacks blamed on extremists.

"This bill is not a text aimed against religions or against the Muslim religion in particular," Prime Minister Jean Castex told reporters after the cabinet approved a text to present to parliament.

"It is the reverse - it is a law of freedom, it is a law of protection, it is a law of emancipation against religious fundamentalism."

Castex said the target of the bill "was the pernicious ideology that goes by the name of Islamist radicalism".

But the government's staunch defence of France's tradition of secularism, sealed in a landmark 1905 law, has caused unease even among allies.

"There can be constructive engagements that I think can be helpful and not harmful," said Sam Brownback, a US envoy for religious freedom.

"When you get heavy-handed, the situation can get worse."

'CLANDESTINE SCHOOLS'

The law was in the pipeline before the October killing of Samuel Paty, a junior high school teacher who was beheaded in the street after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a class.

But the killing, committed by an 18-year old Chechen after a virulent social media campaign against the teacher, gave fresh impetus to the bill and prompted the inclusion of the specific crimes of online hate speech and divulging personal information on the internet.

Paty's death came amid a spate of jihadist-inspired attacks in France this year, including a knife assault outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and deadly stabbings at a church in Nice.

The legislation is one of two hugely controversial items of legislation the government is pushing through parliament, the other a security bill that would restrict publishing the faces of police that has met with fierce opposition from activists.

Castex said the new bill against extremism was needed after "ever more numerous attacks" against France's principles "which affect our ability to live serenely together".

"This ideology aims to divide us from each other and spread hatred and violence in society," said Castex. "This is what we call separatism," he said, using a term repeatedly used by Macron to condemn how some communities are seen as withdrawing from French society.

Castex cited concerns about children being taken out of French schools to be given an alternative education in underground Islamic facilities.

The new legislation bans "clandestine schools that promote a radical Islamist ideology," he said.

But he emphasised that at the same time authorities were expanding the number of primary school classes and housing available in the most affected areas.

'PROTECT OUR CITIZENS'

Under the legislation, doctors would be fined or jailed if they performed a virginity test on girls.

Polygamy is already outlawed in France but the new law would also ban authorities from issuing residency papers to polygamous applicants.

"It is a text that seeks to protect all our citizens. It is a text in line with the great tradition of the founders of our republic," said Castex.

Macron has become a figure of hate in some Muslim countries with some boycotting French products after he said the right to blaspheme would always be guaranteed in France and that Islam was "in crisis".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the draft law an "open provocation", while Egyptian scholars called Macron's views racist.

Macron has also been forced on to the defensive by critical headlines in influential English-language media such as the Financial Times and New York Times.

Muslims in France - often from former French colonies in north and west Africa as well as the Middle East - are estimated at nearly four million, about six percent of the population, the biggest such community in Europe.

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