French Law on “ Republican Values” and the challenge of Muslim political representation

The first political announcements surrounding the French project of President Emmanuel Macron towards French Islam have already been largely covered.

The bill on “ Reinforcing Republican values ”, has been under examination by a [arliamentary “Special commission” since January the 6th[1]. The commission began its work by interviewing several religious actors . The present article describes the challenges raised by the hearing of the CFCM (The French Council of the Muslim Faith) representative wich has shed light o the internal divisions of the organization as well as on the challenges of the state-Islam relations.

The State appointment of the CFCM

In parallel to the bill, Emmanuel Macron has also started two peripheral projects: a chart of republican values and the constitution of a National Council of Imams. Both initiatives have been entrusted to the CFCM in December 2020. Within a few weeks, the National Council of Imams) was removed from the per view of the CFCM[2], mainly because the latter failed to gather a consensus among its members. Even worse, the designation of the CFCM as the main political interlocutor of the state initiatives, has exacerbated resentments of other Muslim leadrs towards this supposedly representative body and revealed its internal absence of cohesion.

Since its creation in 2003, the CFCM lacks legitimacy at the grass root level because it is seen as an instrument of the state power to control Islam.

Internal divisions

The CFCM is made of many Muslim organizations , whose loyalty and political objectives differ. One of the most recurring critics concerns the political independence of the Council. The CFCM alternatively appears to some Muslim leaders too close to the French government, while on the other hand, other leaders favor connections with their country of origin. In December 2020, one of its most important members, the Great Mosque of Paris [La Grande Mosquée of Paris], (known to follow the Algerian government,) decided to withdraw from the Council of French Imams initiative, denouncing the “islamist influence” within the CFCM[3].

Weakened by these discords, the organization is loosing legitimacy: the president of the CFCM has postponed his audition to the legislative commission, officially for health reasons.

A bottom-up and short-term initiative condemned to fail?

Such dissensions will probably not jeopardize the bill , but it will widen the gap between political leaders on one side, and grassroot Muslim organizations on the other. There is a growing disconnection between local actors such as imams, and Muslim leaders involved in national politics. For example, Mohammed Bajrafil, one of the most famous French imams decided to resign from his position. Based near Paris, where he was imam for the last 20 years, Bajrafil denounced the absence of consultation among imams and the improper management of the so-called “representation of French Islam”[4].

Involving local actors or according more importance to regional level could be one of the solutions to get out of the current standstill. Many local or regional actions have been initiated that could included in the umbrella Muslim organization or granted more political legitimacy. This would take more time than anticipated for the state actors, especially knowing that the unification and standardization of French Islam is on the political agenda of Macron and that elections are fast approaching.

Jean Baubérot, a French historian, specialized in “laïcité”, took a stand to warn Emmanuel Macron not to reproduce the same mistakes than his predecessors. In his statement, Baubérot looks at the 1095 Law (which established the separation of the State and the Church), within a broader historical perspective. In his view, a long term approach could prevent the rise of an exclusive “laïcité” aimed primarily at discriminating French Muslims. He warns against the danger of turning “laïcité” into a dogm used as a weapon against religous freedom. 

Overall, Macron’s policy toward Islam seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, being accommodating with the hope to gather as much (diverse) supports as possible, which could been seen by his party as “backpedaling”. On the other hand, keeping with his current initiatives despite the lack of support from Muslim leaders and representatives. Either option will probably turn the bill on Republican values project into an “empty shell”. 





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