President Macron vows crackdown on radical Islam in France

French President Emmanuel Macron presents his strategy to fight separatism, in Les Mureaux, France, on Oct 2, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PARIS (NYTIMES) - President Emmanuel Macron of France on Friday (Oct 2) outlined measures designed to rein in the influence of radical Islam in the country and help develop what he called an "Islam of France" compatible with the nation's republican values.

In a long-awaited speech on the subject, Mr Macron said that the influence of Islamism must be eradicated from public institutions even as he acknowledged government failures in allowing it to spread.

The measures include placing stringent limits on home schooling and increasing scrutiny of religious schools, making associations that solicit public funds sign a "charter" on secularism. While these measures would apply to any group, they are intended to counter extremists in the Muslim community.

Under the measures, the widespread practice of bringing over foreign imams to work in France, where they are often accused of preaching an outdated or extreme version of Islam, would be ended.

The issue of the effects of Islamism has been a persistent one in France, amid fears of the kinds of terrorist attacks the country has faced in recent years, putting pressure on Macron as he faces reelection.

Many of the proposals from Mr Macron were ideas that had been floated in the past or ones he had already approved. His speech on Friday assembled it all into a comprehensive package that the government is expected to present as a bill in December.

"What we must attack is Islamist separatism," Mr Macron said in front of six of his ministers in Les Mureaux, a town northwest of Paris.

"Secularism is the cement of a united France," he said, calling radical Islam both an "ideology" and a "project" that sought to indoctrinate children, undermine France's values - especially gender equality - and create a "countersociety" that sometimes laid the groundwork for Islamist terrorism.

But Mr Macron also recognised that France bore responsibility for letting that ideology spread uncontested.

"We built our own separatism ourselves," he said.

For too long, authorities had amassed largely immigrant populations in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods with little access to jobs or public transportation, leading to a "ghettoisation of our republic," he said.

The speech was postponed several times this year as the president searched, sometimes publicly, for the best approach and language. The stakes were high, as the setting indicated: Mr Macron's speech and answers to journalists, which lasted nearly two hours, were broadcast live on television and the internet.

In a sign of how delicate the issue is for Mr Macron, a member of his party walked out of a parliamentary hearing last month because she objected to the veil worn by a student union leader who was testifying, setting off days of heated debate.

Crucially, Mr Macron's announcement came as France's political establishment gears up for the next presidential election in 18 months.

Accused by both the far-right and traditional conservatives of being lax against radical Islam, Mr Macron has recently used words and adopted positions on social issues that have signalled a clear departure from his more liberal stances at the start of his presidency.

Over the summer, Mr Macron reshuffled his Cabinet with a view toward the next election, handing a key job to Gérald Darmanin, a conservative, hard-charging protégé of the former right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr Darmanin, now the interior minister and head of the national police, has quickly helped set the tone for the remainder of Mr Macron's term.

Even though official data show steady or declining crime rates overall in France, Mr Darmanin joined political rivals on the right to denounce what they claim to be the country's supposed growing insecurity.

Mr Darmanin began using and strongly defending the vocabulary of the far-right to describe a France supposedly "turning savage" - or undergoing an "ensauvagement," a loaded word used by the right to target nonwhite immigrants from France's former African colonies.

The tough talk on crime helped set the stage for Mr Macron's speech, which is likely to set off fierce debate over the coming months as lawmakers consider the bill. It is also expected to sharpen tensions within Mr Macron's party, as the president's rightward tilt has already alienated its left-leaning members.

In his speech, Mr Macron said that to avoid "illegal schools" run by "religious extremists," home schooling would be strictly limited to children with valid medical reasons. Only about 50,000 of France's more than 12 million school students are currently home-schooled.

Mr Macron also outlined a series of measures aimed at making the financing and management of mosques more transparent. Most notably, he said that within the next four years a widespread practice that has foreign-trained imams come to preach in French mosques would be phased out in favor of a France-based training and certification system.

He also said the bill would authorise prefects - representatives of the French state at the local level - to overrule mayors who are deemed too accommodating with religious minorities, for instance by allowing women- or men-only hours at public swimming pools.

Yet his speech also addressed a deep-rooted problem in French society: its enduring difficulty to integrate significant parts of its large, nonwhite, Muslim population of immigrants and their descendants.

The failure to integrate immigrant populations and their descendants has contributed to a growing inequality in France. At its extreme, it has radicalised some young French, especially of North African origin, who went to fight for the Islamic State group in Syria or carried out terrorist attacks at home.

They have included the two brothers who in 2015 attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo, the newspaper that published satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and whose alleged accomplices are now on trial.

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