A rightward push by the French government is alarming civil liberties advocates in France and raising questions about President Emmanuel Macron's positioning before an expected electoral challenge from the far right in 2022.
Propelled by a national wave of anxiety following recent terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, two proposed new laws underscore what critics have called an alarming drift toward repression in government policy.
One bill, which passed an initial hurdle in the National Assembly on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT), restricts the public filming of the police, a step civic groups consider a shield for brutality at a moment when law enforcement has come under more scrutiny for aggressive tactics, often from citizens armed with cellphone cameras.
The other, still to be considered by Parliament, seeks further restrictions against Islamism as the French government has defined it, reaching into some aspects of Muslim life. This bill would ban home-schooling, flag those deemed to "excuse" terrorist acts in a database, subject organisations that receive government subsidies to a test of allegiance to "the values of the republic", and increase strictures against polygamy, which is already illegal.
The law aimed at curbing Islamist extremism follows a series of terrorist attacks, including one at a basilica in Nice that left three dead and the beheading of a teacher in a suburb of Paris, that have set off a government crackdown that critics have contended is already overly broad, in rare cases sweeping up even children as young as 10.
In tilting right, Macron, a shape-shifting centrist who came out of the Socialist Party, has placed himself largely in step with public opinion. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, pollsters say, much of the French public is demanding protection from a perceived Islamist threat, and from public disorder of the sort seen during the Yellow Vest protests against economic hardship two years ago.
But while Macron has little to lose politically, and almost everything to gain, by moving to the right to keep his nationalist opponents at bay, his latest measures have dismayed even some of his early supporters.
Critics have faulted his government for a repressive, stigmatising tone toward Muslims, perhaps a 10th of France's population.
"Under the pretext of reinforcing republican values, we're actually serving the opponents of the republic, who have a xenophobic agenda," said Aurélien Taché, a representative in Parliament who quit Macron's party.
"This law does nothing to reinforce secularism," said Taché, using the French term laïcité.
"Those who pretend to want to do that, actually what they actually want is to exclude the Muslims," said Taché, who represents a Paris suburb.
The law restricting the filming of police officers now threatens to engender even broader criticism because its wording is so open-ended that it has provoked anti-government demonstrations in Paris and other cities. "Big Macron is Watching You," read a sign held aloft at a Saturday rally attended by around 10,000 in Paris.
The law prescribes a penalty of a year in prison and a fine of some €45,000 (NZ$76,500) for anyone who broadcasts "the face or any other identifying element" of police officers in action if the goal is to "physically or mentally harm" them.
Even the European Commission has raised questions, in addition to an outcry from journalists and left-leaning politicians.
"An authoritarian regime is installing itself," thundered Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing France Unbowed party, before Parliament.
"The first liberty the citizen should benefit from is the control of those who exercise authority."
Still, in the context of France's heightened anxiety — which comes after scores of attacks for several years that have left more than 250 people dead — Macron's bigger concern is with the right, and Mélenchon's diatribe can only serve the president's purpose.
"You're seeing an evolution of the electorate to the right," said Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist.
"Public opinion is demanding toughness," said Grunberg.
"Toughness toward Islamists, whoever. There's definitely been a change."
Macron's opposition in 2022 will come either from the far-right former National Front party led by Marine Le Pen or from the mainstream right, neither of which finds any fault with the new laws — both want them to be tougher.
The President's disappointed supporters on the left will have no choice but to vote for Macron again, especially if his opponent is once again Le Pen, just as many did in 2017.
In an environment of fear and xenophobia after the terrorist killings, few voices have been publicly raised, yet, against the measure on what Macron describes as Islamism, or against his accompanying efforts to exert state oversight of the activities of imams in France.
Representatives of France's main mosques and Muslim organisations have not publicly raised objections to Macron's proposals. There is agreement on the need to curb extremism and put a stop to the influence of foreign countries who send imams to France.
In the police bill, civil libertarians have decried what they say is an attempt to stifle what is seen as a major tool in curbing French police violence — a term rejected wholesale by Macron — in recent years: the filming of the police by citizens, equipped with nothing more than their smartphones.
Police unions have been demanding such a measure, and in France these unions, unlike others, often get what they want. Governments have traditionally been afraid to cross them. The police in France are rarely punished for acts of violence.
And they have always hated being filmed. Several now-notorious cases of police brutality have come to light as a result of this impromptu filming, including the suffocation death of a bicycle delivery driver earlier this year after he had filmed his own arrest. Incidents of police brutality against black and North African youth in the suburbs, quasi-endemic according to independent reports, have also been filmed by citizens.
On Monday night, citizens filmed the police violently breaking up a migrant encampment in central Paris, harsh scenes which led to an internal police investigation; "shocking" is how even the hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, characterised them.
"So, Mr Interior Minister, you'll agree then that these images are actually useful — and you're the one who wanted to ban them," wrote Clémentine Autain, a parliamentary representative of France Unbowed, on Twitter.
Under the new bill, they might soon be illegal.
France's public citizens' rights guardian has raised alarm bells, saying these images are "legitimate and necessary" in a democracy. So have many journalists and academics.
"For the last two years, because of these videos, the whole issue of police violence has become a major subject in society, which it was not before," said David Dufresne, a freelance journalist whose compilation of police violence videos during Yellow Vest protests brought into sharp focus the government's harsh repression of the movement.
"Now they have introduced the idea of intention," he said. "But what they want to do is stop the introduction of these images."
The measure nonetheless passed easily thanks to Macron's large parliamentary majority, smoothed by promises from Darmanin, who is seen as especially receptive to the French police, that press freedom was not at stake.
In the measure on Islam, the muted criticism has focused on an increasing official tendency to single out the country's large Muslim community for regulation.
Originally an initiative against what Macron himself described as "separatisms," it was rebaptised as a law to "reinforce republican principles", in an apparent effort to back away from undertones of stigma.
The critics are not fooled, however.
"I'm very disappointed by his secularist, authoritarian drift," said Olivier Roy, one of France's best-known scholars of Islam.
"Teachers are being told to denounce their students. This is unacceptable," he said.
''Every statement against laïcité becomes separatist," Roy said, referring to the republic's guiding precept of secularism, which guarantees freedom of worship but also enforces a strict neutrality of the state on religious matters.
"This is very serious. It's an assault against freedom of expression."
Others warned against potential long-term consequences.
"Absurd and counterproductive, and it weakens the republic. Was it really a good idea to alienate 10 per cent of the French public?" asked Ayyam Sureau, who heads a refugee aid association in Paris.
"They've rallied together the moderates and the Islamists," she said.
Macron himself, in an October speech heralding the initiative, slipped imperceptibly from denunciations of "Islamism", to decrying the problems of Islam itself, and then back to "Islamism".
"I feel this is wounding for the Muslim community as a whole," said Sureau.
"This consecrates the separation. I don't see what's new apart from stigmatising the entire community."
Written by: Adam Nossiter
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