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France Considers A Law To Curb What It Views As Islamist Extremism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Next month, the French Parliament will debate a law giving the government new powers to curb what it views as Islamist extremism. This comes on the heels of a recent spate of terror attacks. The law is part of a broad debate about religion in French life, a debate that stretches from the presidential palace to the schools. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Last month, an 18-year-old extremist beheaded a middle school history teacher who'd shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in his lesson on free speech. France was horrified.

HAKIM EL KAROUI: I'm despair. The attack is so cruel. And the impact on the French opinion is so huge.

BEARDSLEY: That's Hakim El Karoui, a scholar and head of the association, Islam Of France. Two weeks after the beheading near Paris, a second lone-wolf attacker slit the throats of three people inside a church in the southern city of Nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Muslims attended Mass in churches across France that weekend to show solidarity with their Catholic compatriots. Even before the gruesome attacks, President Emmanuel Macron had renewed debate about the role of Muslims in French society. In a major policy speech, he introduced a law to combat a force he said is threatening the French republic. He called it Islamist separatism, coining a new term.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Through interpreter) Islamist separatism is a conscious political-religious project to slowly create a separate, parallel and counter-society by repeatedly rejecting French laws, principles and values.

BEARDSLEY: Macron said Islamist separatism creates the conditions for Islamist radicalism. Under his proposed law, home schooling would be banned, and Muslim associations or mosques could be shut down for promoting messages contrary to core French values, like gender equality and freedom of speech. Muslim leaders would be asked to sign a charter respecting these values. Scholar El Karoui says most French Muslims already do, but he agrees with Macron that they need to take more responsibility for the whole community.

EL KAROUI: They have to fight against extremism inside Islam, to spread an enlightened version of Islam. They have to be involved in social issues, in educational issues.

RIM-SARAH ALOUANE: It's not the job of Muslims to counter terrorism (laughter). Muslims want to live their lives. And it's the role of the state to do that.

BEARDSLEY: That's French legal scholar Rim-Sarah Alouane. She says French Muslims feel stigmatized by what she calls an increasingly militant secularism, or laicite. A 1905 law meant to limit the influence of the Catholic Church and guarantee religious freedom is now the basis for restrictions on the wearing of obvious religious symbols, like headscarves, large crosses or Jewish skullcaps. They're banned from public schools, and government workers can't wear them in the office.

ALOUANE: Laicite has been misused as a political tool to limit the visibility of religious signs, especially against Muslims, and to constantly question Muslim loyalty to France and debate whether or not Muslims can be good French citizens.

BEARDSLEY: Even children have gotten caught up in the debate. After the teacher's beheading, schools across the nation held a minute of silence. Teachers were required to report students who did not comply. Some 400 cases were referred to law enforcement, including four 10-year-olds from Muslim families who were detained in southeast France. Florence Dumont, president of the League of Human Rights, says the government is panicking.

FLORENCE DUMONT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: What does it mean to accuse children of defending terrorism and interrogate them for hours at a police precinct without their parents, she asks. Dumont says such cases should be handled by the schools. In the last five years, more than 250 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France, most carried out in the name of Islam. So it's understandable that many people conflate Islam with radicalism, says Vincent Geisser, an expert on the Arab and Muslim world with the French National Center for Scientific Research. But Geisser takes issue with Macron.

VINCENT GEISSER: (Through interpreter) The president is focusing on Muslims and implying that if there's a rise in terrorism, then maybe it's because Muslims aren't secular enough, that if you're a practicing Muslim, you're somehow against French values.

BEARDSLEY: Thirty-three prominent French figures from philosophers to filmmakers have written an open letter asking Macron to withdraw his bill on so-called Islamist separatism. They say it would roll back civil liberties and could even lead to a police state. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT FOR LASHES SONG, "WINTER FIELDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.