French Senate approves toughened version of bill accused of stigmatising Islam

A protester holds a placard reading "stop the separatism bill" at a demonstration in February against controversial proposals the government says are necessary to maintain French unity and that critics say are discriminatory towards Muslims.
A protester holds a placard reading "stop the separatism bill" at a demonstration in February against controversial proposals the government says are necessary to maintain French unity and that critics say are discriminatory towards Muslims. AFP - GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT

France’s right-wing majority Senate has approved proposals including expanded bans on religious symbols and clothing in a set of new draft laws to counter what President Emmanuel Macron has called Islamist separatism. Critics say the new measures, which may not be included in the final version, discriminate against Muslims.


The French Senate, dominated by right-wing opposition party Les Républicains, approved a new version of the so-called controversial "separatism" bill late Monday by 208 in favour, with 109 opposed.

The new version expands the measures already adopted by the National Assembly, controlled by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move party (LREM). 

Designed primarily to crack down on religious leaders or organisations deemed to be espousing values contrary to those of the French Republic, the bill has been controversial since it was first announced last autumn as a measure to tackle what Macron called Islamist separatism. 

The label was dropped but has returned to the title of the Senate-approved version, which calls it a bill “reinforcing the respect for principles of the Republic and the fight against separatism”. 

The Senate-approved version will not necessarily be the one signed into law. If a cross-party parliamentary commission fails to agree on a common version, each chamber of parliament will vote anew, with the National Assembly having the final say.

What are the toughened measures?

The Senate-approved version introduces measures that would expand bans on symbols or clothing expressing religious faith in public. 

The new version proposes to expand bans on face coverings including for parents accompanying children on school outings, during national sport competitions and for minors in public places, as well as the full-body swimsuit, known as the burkini at swimming pools. 

These measures may not be included in the final version. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin previously said the government would not accept a ban on expression of religious faith in public, and LREM senators abstained from the vote. 

Other new measures include banning religion practices in public universities and other higher learning institutions, with senators giving the example of prayers in hallways and other “inappropriate places”.

The text would ban political campaigning on platforms deemed contrary to “national sovereignty and democracy, as well as secularism” and forbids candidates with religious symbols on campaign material and “openly communitarian” platforms. 

Immigration authorities would have the right to refuse renewing resident cards of persons appearing to have rejected republican principles, social services would be able to withhold family benefits in the event of too many school absences, and mayors would have the right to forbid foreign flags during marriages or civil unions. 

Home schooling

Senators however chose to soften measures regarding home schooling. 

The government argued homeschooling could be a cover for radicalisation and sought to introduce a system by which families wanting to home school would have to request authorisation.

Senators struck down this measure, preferring to retain the current system of simply declaring home schooling, not wanting to create “generalised suspicion” around home schooling, which is not always done for religious reasons. 

A number of articles have been newly included in the Senate version. 

One amendment requires state approval for foreign funding of religious sites and to oppose private schools financed by states deemed “hostile” to France.

Concomitant with controversy over “non-mixed” meetings organised by left-wing student union UNEF, the right-wing senators introduced a clause that would allow the government to ban any group that restricts access to meetings on the basis of skin colour or origin. 

Accused of discrimination

Left-wing senators and human rights groups generally objected to the proposals.  

“The senators who approved this text not only validated measures already identified as problematic, but also introduced new measures clearly contrary to international and human right law, above all the principle of non-discrimination,” said Jean-François Dubost of the French office of rights group Amnesty International in a statement

Amnesty took particular exception to the proposals concerning religious symbols or clothing, arguing that secularism or “neutrality” did not signify legitimate reasons for bans.

“While the amendments were formulated in a neutral way, the debates around their adoptions specifically targets Muslims,” Dubost said. 

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