Rule of Law and the State-Sponsored Repression of Islam in France

“’We are Beginning to Spread Terror: The State-Sponsored Persecutions of Muslims in France” is the latest report to be produced by CAGE, an independent advocacy organisation that works to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror policies worldwide1. Authored by French legal Jurist and Cage researcher Rayan Freschi, it is considered a “first-of-its-kind”2  report that details the “unprecedented crackdown on Islam and Muslims”3 in France since 2017 under the Government of Emmanuel Macron . Freschi said the report “documents how the French state has swiftly dismantled the foundations of the Muslim community’s autonomy through a calculated persecution, spreading terror among an entire religious community”4

The report focuses on the “Systematic Obstruction” policy, implemented in 2018 with the aim of targeting so called “radical-Islam”5, which, according to the former French Home Secretary Christophe Castaner, is synonymous with: “the beard, hijab, prayer, religiosity during Ramadan and other normal expressions of Islam”6. This policy is what the author identifies as a “Persecution of Muslims in France”7. By analysing the current French legislation alongside information gathered from French Muslim communities, the report shows how Muslims in France are being subject to state-led persecution on an industrial scale (Cage, 2022: 12)7.

Introduction and Background to Systematic Obstruction Policy.

The report firstly outlines what they determine as the methods of persecution of Muslims in French society over the last five years. At the centre of it, is the Systematic Obstruction policy “a form of maximum pressure policing whereby overwhelmingly Muslim institutions are monitored, surveyed, investigated for minor infractions and sanctioned – up to the point of dissolution8 (Cage, 2022: 11). For example, renowned Muslim organisations such as Baraka City and the CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) were dissolved in 2020, businesses and Muslim organisations are placed on a secret blacklist with strict monitoring, and hundreds of establishments such as mosques and Muslim schools have closed9. According to the latest statistics released by the French Government in 2022, there have been 24,887 investigations carried out; 781 Muslim organisations have been closed or dissolved; and €46 million ($50 million) has been confiscated10. On average this amounts to approximately 24 investigations a day, 15 closures per month, and 10 million euros seized per year11. CAGE states that not only do these examples and statistics evidence how policy created full-blown harassment, monitoring, and targeting of Muslim institutions, but they also show how the policy extends beyond police repression to constitute “a calculated attack on the social life of Muslims” (Cage, 2022: 11)12.

According to the author of the report, the state administration is “deliberately targeting its Muslim minority ’” (Cage, 2022: 12)13, which Cage argue is akin to persecution. They adopt the definition of persecution used in Article 7 of ‘The International Criminal Court Act’ (2006) which states that persecution is “the international and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity”14.

The report notes that this same definition was used by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda15However, in contrast to international treaties, but in line with customary international law, the author argues that persecution does not necessarily equate to mass violence16.

The Build-Up to the Report: Islamophobia and Assimilation in France

This section of the report takes into consideration the Systematic Obstruction policy has come into place by taking into consideration the specific cultural values, histories and dominant ideologies of the French nation (Cage, 2022: 15)17. The report identifies three unique circumstances that shapes France’s “structural Islamophobia”18. First is Laicité – usually taken as interchangeable with secularism (the French state’s separation of religion and state). Secondly, the ‘cultural values of the Republic, and finally ‘France’s assimilation politics’ (where minorities as a legal category are not recognised within France)19

Assimilate or Eliminate: The Ideological Roots of the Systematic Obstruction Policy

The Institut Montaigne, a private French Think Tank, established in 2000, drafted two reports, “A French Islam is Possible (2016) and “The Islamist Factory (2018) which influenced the Macron government approach towards “Islamist Separatism”. The 2016 report, published prior to Macron’s election, called for “French Islam compatible with the French Republic”20. As CAGE notes, such an objective operates on on a colonised understanding of Islam with the objective to create a new religious organisation controlled by the French state21. The 2018 report focused on “Islamism”. According to the Institut, “Islamism”, is mainly represented by the “Muslim Brotherhood” and “Wahhabism”. Both movements goal is to “turn Islam into a way of life and a program for the individual and society, aiming to preserve an Islamic civilization and to establish a universalist and proselyte version of Islam” (Cage, 2022: 21)22. The 2018 report therefore concludes that Muslims exist as a foreign body in France, therefore representing a danger to French cultural codes23

Following these reports, a third report was published titled “The 2020 Senate Report” in July 2020. This report was published following a senatorial committee being established on November 14th 2019 to lead an inquiry into the French state’s answer to “Islamist radicalisation”, and what was being done to counter it.According to the summary of the report, “Islamist radicalisation” is not exclusively connected to terrorism: it can be non-violent and seeks to “influence the daily lives and relationships of French Muslims and foreign Muslims living in France, imposing on them an orthopraxis, clothing, food and ritual practices, but above all a standard of behaviour in order to separate them from the rest of the French population” (Cage, 2022: 21)24

According to the 2020 senate report a direct link exists between “Islamism” and “dynamics of separatism” (i.e. the desire to live according to a community’s principles and among those who share them). In the 2020 Senate report, “Islamists” are to be counterposed to “Muslims”: “the latter being good, politically submissive and the silenced version of the “bad” former”25. These reports, alongside pronouncements from the government officials have fueled fear of Islam, which according to CAGE “ contributes to the deep Islamophobic resentment amongst the French population”26. Examples of such official pronouncements include President Macron allegedly stating “Fear must change sides. I want Islamists to feel in danger at any time of the day or night”27 , following the murder and beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in 2020 in Paris (see Euro-Islam “The Death of Samuel Paty: Its Consequences for Laicite and for Islam”). 

The Systematic Obstruction Policy

According to Cage, this policy was first tested in 15 unknown areas across France in February 2018. It was then made public on the 28th November 2019. The plan originally known as the “Plan to fight radicalisation” was rebranded as the fight against “Islamism and community withdrawal”. It grants the French state the power to monitor, dissolve, and close institutions and organisations, seize money under the pretence of preserving Republican values and combating “Islamism” and “Separatism”28.

How the Policy Works

It is spearheaded by the President of the Republic and the government – whose task is to enforce the law and establish public policies. At the departmental level, the “prefects” are in charge of its local implementation. To support the Prefects, the government created “departmental cells”. They are described as a “multidisciplinary team, under the authority of the departmental prefect, to coordinate the action of all actors likely to contribute to the fight against Islamism and community withdrawal” (Cage, 2022: 27)29. Within this multidisciplinary team, every section of the public sector is involved. The tasks for the department cells are five-fold. They involve collecting intelligence about “Islamist Separatism” and sharing it with the prefect, undertaking systematic obstruction checks on the basis of the information gathered, keeping pressure on institutions following checks, and proposing actions to take 30. According to the CAGE report, such a policy is in fact “ideological policing” which aims at identifying suspects ( Muslim citizens and organisations) who need to be “cured” by returning to Republican values and principles31. Cage further note this is a troubling illustration of “civic sanction” where policies do not operate within the boundaries of criminal law and accountability32.

CAGE believes that the Systematic Obstruction policy will remain a feature of French politics and that the challenge ahead is to abolish the institutions that were created to implement it33.

How Muslim’ Freedom of Religion and Opinion are Restricted and Redefined.

In an effort to tackle “Islamist Separatism” a number of bodies and committees were established.

The Interministerial Committee on Secularism (CIL): reclaiming laicité

The CIL was created on the 4th June 2021 and aims to: 1) guarantee respect for the principle of secularism in public services, 2) train public employees in secularism, 3) disseminate a culture of secularism in public services, 4) promote the model of secularism in civil society, and 5) coordinate interministerial work on secularism (Cage, 2022: 35)34. The CAGE report notes the fourth part of the plan merits closer observation as in this context, “promoting secularism is the soft arm of policing civil society” (Cage, 2022: 35)35.

The Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Crime and Radicalisation (CIPDR) and its Republican Counter Discourse Unit

The CIPDR is the head of the fight against separatism. The authors of the CAGE report focus specifically on its “Republican Counter Discourse Unit” and describe it as a “full-time propaganda unit”36. However, it’s role, according to the Minister Delegate for Citizenship Marlène Schiappa is to “counter cyber-Islam”37, by monitoring social networks. The Unit is composed of 17 analysts who: 1) monitor “Islamist” discourse on social networks, 2) Identify “Islamist” preachers, 3) Promote content praising Republican values and/or deconstructing “Islamist Discourse” (CAGE, 2022: 36)38.The CIPDR launched in April 2021 he “Marianne” funds that offers 2.5million Euros to NGOS that will submit projects to “counter separatist propaganda online” and “defend the republic values”39. These initiatives are similar to other European programmes such as PREVENT in the UK (see Euro-Islam “The People’s Review of PREVENT: Key Findings”) which attempt to co-opt civil society to promote the government action against pre-designated enemies40

The Legislative Assault Expands

The Systematic Obstruction Policy has been expanded through other legislation and administration procedures.

  1. The bill “to strengthen respect for the principles of the Republic”41
    (Cage refer to this as the “Anti-Separatism Law” in their report, however that is not the official name).

Introduced in January 2021, this bill came into law in August that year with 70% votes in favour. 44. The law contains 101 provisions, with some of the most significant elements including: expanding governmental powers to dissolve an organisation by enabling them to bypass the court process, targeting Islamic private education, strengthening of laicité, requiring political, philosophical and religious neutrality of any civil servant – including the banning of wearing religious symbols (this now extends to non-civil servant employees such as train drivers, healthcare workers and cleaners)45.

As CAGE notes, the legal system has been transformed from a potential guarantor of protection for the fundamental rights of Muslims into a set of tools which enables their persecution46. This law has been widely condemned. For example, Sarah Mazouz, a researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research stated: 

“It’s leading to a blurring between Islam and radical Islamism, between Muslims and violent Islamists. It’s reactivating the anxiety over French Muslims”47.

2. Imam Charter

The Imam Charter was unveiled in November 2021, following the Samuel Paty murder in 2020. The Charter is an attempt to make imams adopt the self-styled “French Islam” promoted by the government, and to subordinate Islam to republicanism48. Whilst the charter has no legal value, it remains a strong political tool: Refusal of imams to sign the Charter can trigger repression through “Systematic Obstruction”. 

3. The Ministry of Education

The CAGE report notes that the Ministry of Education is key in the implementation state control. In September 20201, the Ministry launched a campaign to promote laicité, with the aim of talking “about secularism in its most unifying aspects49. The Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer stated that professors who “opposed republican values” should quit their job, believing that this was part of their job to share these values with students50.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The report notes that the Presidency of Macron has led to an unprecedented institutionalisation of state-led repression of Muslim organizations and practices51. CAGE anticipates that the Systematic Obstruction policies will not only remain but expand. Additionally, this policy is largely under-reported in France and internationally. This is problematic, they argue, not only to ensure that French Muslim civil society is not further silenced, but to limit the risk that that these policies can be exported to the neighboring countries. For example, France collaborates closely with Belgium, Austria, and Denmark on matters of counter-extremism and terrorism, and the French government frequently demands that international institutions “toe its line on Muslims”52.

CAGE concludes the report with 13 recommendations: some aimed at the French Government and some for NGOS across Europe, mainly calling for the suppression of the state control and the mobilisation of civil societies in Europe against the dissemination of such a policy.  

Response to the Report

France’s General Secretariat of the Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalisation (DG-CIPDR) labelled CAGE as a “network of Islamist militants”53 in a Twitter thread on April 28th and accused them of spreading fake news and lies. It also described them as a group that “shares the ideology and views of those who participated in, encouraged, and carried out the assassination of Samuel Paty”54.

Via their Twitter account, CAGE reacted to this critique by stating that they were “holding a mirror” to the face of the French Government, where “42% of their electorate have just voted for an outright fascist” in the 2022 Presidential election55.

Further, on April 29th 2022, the Council of State (the highest court in France), suspended the execution of the decree which dissolved the “Palestine Action Committee” and the collective “Palestine will win”. These organisations were previously dissolved in March 2022 by the Ministry of Interior on the ground of “incitement to hatred, discrimination, violence” and “provocation to terrorist acts”56. The Palestine Action Committee in particular was criticised by the Ministry of Interior, whilst “under the guise of defending the Palestinian cause” they have cultivated “the feeling of oppression of Muslim peoples […] with the aim of spreading the idea of Islamophobia on an international scale”57

The Council of State referred to the dissolution of the Palestine Action Committee as carrying “a serious and manifestly illegal attack on the freedom of association and the freedom of expression”58, and that the positions taken in the organisations publications cannot be be either regarded as provoking violence, discrimination and hatred against a group of people, or can their views qualified as provoking acts of terrorism59

The Council of State also found that the collective “Palestine will win” does not cause or contribute to violence, discrimination and hatred. They further stated that the collectives “position vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism does not present an anti-Semitic character”60, nor can their boycott of Israeli products be considered as contributing to discrimination, hatred and violence61. Previously the Ministry of Interior had accused the collective of “discrimination and hatred against Israel and the Israelis”62 because of their campaigns to boycott. 

Both the collective Palestine will win and the Palestine Action Committee welcomed the decisions which they state “is a precious victory for the rule of law”63

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