French President Emmanuel Macron has announced new measures aimed at countering political Islam in France. The changes would limit the role that foreign governments have in France in training imams, financing mosques and educating children. Pictured: Macron speaks to the media in Mulhouse, on February 18, 2020, shortly before making the major policy speech in which he vowed to fight what he called "Islamist separatism." (Photo by Sebastien Bozon/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron has announced new measures aimed at countering political Islam in France. The changes would limit the role that foreign governments have in France in training imams, financing mosques and educating children.
Macron also vowed to fight what he called "Islamist separatism" and to lead what he described as a "Republican reconquest" aimed at reasserting state control over Muslim ghettoes — so-called no-go zones (zones urbaines sensibles, sensitive urban zones) — in France.
In a much-anticipated policy speech, Macron, during a visit to the eastern French city of Mulhouse on February 18, said that his government would seek to combat "foreign interference" in how Islam is practiced, and the way that Muslim religious institutions are organized in France. "The problem is when, in the name of a religion, some people want to separate themselves from the Republic and therefore not respect its laws," he said. "Here in France, there is no place for political Islam."
Macron outlined a four-pronged strategy to combat Islamism in the country: 1) fight against foreign influences in schools and places of worship; 2) reorganize Muslim worship in France in accordance with the principles of secularism and French law; 3) fight against all manifestations of Islamist separatism and communitarianism; and 4) reassert state control over all parts of France.
Macron said that, among other measures, he plans to terminate a decades-old teacher exchange program called Teaching Language and Culture of Origin (L'Enseignement Langue et Culture d'origine, ELCO), which allows nine countries — Algeria, Croatia, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey — to send teachers to France to provide foreign language and culture courses without oversight by French authorities.
Four majority-Muslim countries — Algeria, Morocco Tunisia and Turkey — are involved in ELCO, which serves approximately 80,000 students each year. These countries also send several hundred imams to France every year. Foreign imams, Macron said, were often linked to Salafism or the Muslim Brothers and "preach against the Republic." He stressed: "This end to the consular Islam system is extremely important to curb foreign influence and make sure everybody respects the laws of the Republic."
Macron said that ELCO will be replaced with bilateral agreements to ensure that the French state has control over the courses and their content, as of September 2020. Macron added that Turkey was the only country that had refused to sign a new bilateral agreement.
The Turkish government operates a large network of mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe under the auspices of Diyanet, or Directorate of Religious Affairs, which spent more than $2 billion on promoting Islam in 2019 and is controlled by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been accused of using Diyanet to prevent the integration of Muslims in Europe.
"Turkey today can make the choice to follow that path with us or not, but I will not allow any foreign country feed a cultural, religious or identity-related separatism on our Republic's territory," Macron said. "We cannot have Turkey's laws on France's soil. No way."
Macron also said that a new law is being drafted to allow for transparency in how mosques are financed. "Mosques financed with transparency with imams trained in France and respectful of the Republican values and principles, that's how we will create the conditions so that Muslims in France can freely practice their religion," he said.
Macron added that he would ask the French Council of the Muslim Faith (Conseil français du culte musulman, CFCM), the body representing Islam in France, to help the government find solutions to train imams on French soil and ensure they can speak French and not spread Islamism.
Macron also called for better integration of Muslims in French society and warned of the dangers of communitarianism — the practice of communities governing themselves in France:
"We are here for a reason that we share with Muslims — that is the struggle against communitarianism. What we must put in place is not, as I have sometimes heard from some people, 'a plan against Islam.' That would be a profound mistake. What we must fight is the separatism, because when the Republic does not keep its promises, others will try to replace it."
Macron's speech, which comes just weeks before municipal elections set for March 15 and 22, is part of an effort to elicit support from conservative voters. The government has faced criticism over its lackluster efforts to promote Muslim integration in France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated to number around 6 million, or 8 percent of the population.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the French nationalist party National Rally, has repeatedly argued that France has failed to assimilate its Muslim community — thus jeopardizing laïcité, or state secularism, a 1905 legal principle that separates church and state and requires the state's neutrality on religion. Le Pen, who is neck and neck with Macron in public opinion polls, speaks for many voters who are concerned about the spread of radical Islam in France.
Macron, who took office in May 2017 and has focused most of his presidency on economic reform, has had mixed results on keeping promises regarding Islamism and mass migration.
October 2017. Macron signed a new counter-terrorism law — Law to Strengthen Internal Security and the Fight Against Terrorism (Loi renforçant la sécurité intérieure et la lutte contre le terrorisme) — which gives prefects, police and security forces wide-ranging powers, without the need to seek prior approval from a judge, to search homes, place people under house arrest and close places of worship. The measure also authorizes police to perform identity checks at French borders.
February 2018. Macron pledged to "lay the groundwork for the entire reorganization of Islam in France." He said that the plan would be announced within six months and would limit the role that foreign governments have in training imams, financing mosques and educating children in France — the very same objectives that Macron announced two years later in his speech in Mulhouse in February 2020.
September 2018. French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb launched the "Republican Reconquest" (Reconquête Républicaine) aimed at retaking control of 60 so-called no-go zones in France by sending in extra police and improving public services.
September 2019. Macron, arguing that the government must stop voters from drifting to populist parties, hinted at a tougher line on immigration. "France cannot host everyone if it wants to host them well," Macron told French radio station Europe 1.
Macron's comments caused a backlash from left-leaning members of his own party. They penned two open letters warning against "fueling hatred against all Muslim citizens." Lawmaker Jean-François Cesarini accused Macron of "co-opting Le Pen's talking points."
Meanwhile, in a new book — "The Emirates of the Republic: How Islamists are Taking Control of the Suburbs" — François Pupponi, who for 20 years was the Socialist mayor of Sarcelles, a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris, recounts how supporters of political Islam have upset the balance in his community, where Arabs, Christians, Jews and Turks had lived together in peace for many decades.
Pupponi describes a landscape in which entire districts are being infiltrated by Islamists in order to "make a takeover bid on this community." He added: "It is the fruit of my experience, what I live and what I observe."