PARIS: France’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday voted in favour of a law to battle “Islamist separatism” that is billed by the government as a riposte to religious groups attempting to undermine the secular state.

The draft legislation, which has been criticised for stigmatising Muslims and giving the state new powers to limit speech and religious groups, was backed by a clear majority of MPs in the National Assembly.

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party rallied around the law, with 347 National Assembly lawmakers voting in favour, 151 against and 65 abstaining.

The text will now be submitted to the upper house Senate, where Macron’s party does not hold a majority.

“It’s an extremely strong secular offensive,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL radio ahead of the vote on Tuesday. “It’s a tough text... but necessary for the republic.” Among the more than 70 separate articles, the law expands the ability of the state to close places of worship and religious schools, as well as to ban extremist preachers.Amid concerns about the funding of mosques by Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, it requires religious groups to declare large foreign donations and have their accounts certified.

It comes with presidential elections looming next year and with decades-long divisions about the integration of France’s large Muslim population and the threat of Islamists causing fresh tensions.

Macron and Darmanin in particular have been accused of pandering to far-right voters by exaggerating the danger of Islamist groups in the often-marginalised immigrant communities found in French suburbs.

The government counters that the threat is real, pointing to repeated terror attacks and what Macron called the development of a “counter-society” that rejects secularism, equality and other French values and laws.

Over the past week, a school teacher in a tough suburb southwest of Paris has come to national prominence over claims he needed police protection after receiving death threats for denouncing local Islamists.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2021

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