French president presses Muslim leaders to embrace 'republican values'

Emmanuel Macron Credit Frederic Legrand COMEO Shutterstock CNA French President Emmanuel Macron. / Frederic Legrand COMEO via Shutterstock

In the wake of several suspected Islamist attacks in France this year, President Emmanuel Macron has asked the country's Muslim leaders to sign a "charter of republican values" agreeing to a rejection of Islam as a political movement.

According to the BBC, Macron's proposed charter is one part of a wider government strategy to curb foreign influence and prevent violence and threats from extremists.

Macron has, since his 2017 election, emphasized support for secular government and has criticized what he calls "Islamist separatism," encouraging the nation's Muslims to integrate into French society. As part of legislation that Macron has introduced to tackle extremism, homeschooling would be restricted.

The charter will, among other things, state that Islam is a religion and not a political movement, the BBC reports.

Members of the French Council of the Muslim Faith agreed in November to form a national council of imams, and the CFCM is set to meet with Macron this week to discuss the proposed charter. The CFCM will be charged with accrediting imams.

France is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim minority, at around 5 million.

The debate over the charter and the "French values" it contains continues following at least three suspected Islamist terrorist attacks during 2020.

In mid-October, a Muslim student beheaded teacher Samuel Paty after Paty showed his class a cartoon depicting Muhammad.

Eyewitnesses said that suspect Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov shouted "Allahu akbar"- Arabic for "God is great"- as he murdered Paty near the middle school where he taught. The 18-year-old Russian national of Chechen origin was shot dead by police shortly after the murder.

Public schools in France held a minute of silence in tribute to Paty Nov. 2, and some classrooms held discussions on freedom of expression.

The discussions of freedom of expression led to the police investigation of at least 17 minors, one of whom is Catholic, the New York Times reported.

The justice ministry said 14 minors were interrogated in police stations or held in custody. Some of their families were questioned about their religious practices.

One 16-year-old near Marseille was arrested for continuing to listen to music on headphones during the minute of silence.

Another Islamic attacker on Oct. 29 killed three people inside Notre-Dame de Nice. Police shot and arrested the perpetrator, Brahim Aouissaoui. Aouissaoui reportedly arrived in Europe in late September, first at the Italian island Lampedusa before traveling to France.

Other attacks took place in France Oct. 29. In Montfavet, near Avignon, a man waving a handgun made threats and was killed by the police two hours after the Nice attack. Radio station Europe 1 said the man was also shouting "Allahu Akbar."

Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the CFCM, condemned the terrorist attack and asked French Muslims to cancel their festivities for Mawlid, the Oct. 29 celebration of Muhammad's birthday, "as a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones."

Macron introduced sweeping anti-radicalization legislation following the attacks, which is set to be debated in the French cabinet Dec. 9. Restrictions on homeschooling are among the provisions of the bill.

Other provisions of the bill include stricter punishments for those who intimidate public officials on religious grounds; extending national identification numbers- which most students in France already have- to homeschoolers to ensure that students are attending school; and a ban on sharing personal information that allows people who want to harm a person to find them, a practice known in the U.S. as "doxxing."

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The concept of laïcité, or secularism, has been a fixture of French law since 1905. At that time, the Third Republic officially established state secularism, causing a subsequent wave of anti-Catholicism, which included the end of government funding for religious schools, mandatory civil marriage, and the removal of chaplains from the army.

The principles of laïcité have evolved over the years to apply to private citizens as well as the government, and in recent decades been applied to Muslim women who wear hijabs or other religious garb in public.

During summer 2016, the Council of State, France's highest administrative court, ruled that the burkini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet "seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms," including freedom of belief. 

On Nov. 30 this year, the French Council of State ruled that a proposed 30-person limit on Masses and other forms of public worship is a "disproportionate" government measure and must be modified by Dec. 2.

The country's Catholic bishops welcomed the decision Nov. 29, saying in a statement that "reason has been recognized."

France has suffered over a dozen Islamist terrorist attacks since 2015, including a January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, and a series of coordinated attacks in Paris during November 2015 that killed at least 130 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.

Father Jacques Hamel was beheaded by supporters of the Islamic State while offering Mass July 26, 2016. Following Paty's killing this year, religious leaders gathered at a memorial to Hamel and laid a wreath in Paty's honor.

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In England, multiple Catholic bishops have expressed concern that the government's push for "British values" in schools, meant to counter Islamist extremism, could instead harm sincere religious believers and burden Catholic schools.