By Akshita Tiwary
Akshita Tiwary is a 3rd year law student at Government Law College, Mumbai, India. She serves as an Assistant Editor for JURIST, University of Pittsburgh, and is keenly interested in international law, human rights and constitutional law.
On 16th February 2021, France’s National Assembly passed an anti-radicalism bill in order to counter extremism within the country [1, 2]. Prima facie, the bill is expected to defeat “Islamist separatism” and unify the tenets of French secularism, which advocates for the equality of all religions. However, the bill is facing severe flak due to its xenophobic nature. It is believed that it violates the right to freedom of religion of the Muslim population in France. Hence, this article analyses several features of the proposed law to determine its compatibility with the right to freedom of religion.
CONTROVERSIAL PROVISIONS OF THE BILL
Several provisions of the bill are drafted in a manner which reinforces “respect for the principles of the French Republic” . These provisions clearly reflect the Government’s priority as defeating terrorism within the country in any manner possible, even if such methods may disrespect the beliefs or faiths of a particular religious community .
The bill primarily aims to strengthen secularism within the country. Article 4, thus, makes ‘separatism’ an offence, liable to be punished with fine or imprisonment. This clause also seeks to protect teachers, so that they are not attacked for disseminating information while exercising their teaching function . However, certain critics believe that this provision has a paradoxical effect, as such things are already repressed by the penal code . Additionally, distinguishing between the protection afforded to teachers as against other professionals can actually undermine the repression of violent acts overall.
Article 6 of the bill lays down that associations can be given public funds, subject to the signing of a ‘republican contract of engagement’. To claim funds from the State or communities, the associative world must therefore commit to “respecting the principles of freedom, equality, fraternity, respect for the dignity of the human person as well as respecting the 'public order, the minimum requirements of life in society and the fundamental symbols of the Republic”. Such strict monitoring is intended to ensure that public funds are not utilised to finance any act of terrorism within the country. However, insisting on signing such a contract of engagement largely infringes on the freedom of civil society organisations. In order to promote their agenda and beliefs, they would need to conform to certain ‘appropriate standards’ and endorse only those goals that are deemed to be right by the Government. Needless to say, there is a higher risk of Muslim associations being put at a disadvantageous position, where they would be required to show that their work only seeks to protect and promote their own religious beliefs, and not those of Islamist extremists. Such a process can become cumbersome, especially given the rise of xenophobic sentiments within the country .
Next, article 8 of the bill empowers the executive to dissolve those associations which seemingly call for violent or provocative actions against people or property, or discriminate against people on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation. Effectively, this means that an association can be dissolved even if some of its members turn out to be deviants. Unduly holding an association accountable for the personal actions of its members is expected to avoid "circumvention strategies" which are observed by "extreme groups". This can severely hamper the work of these associations, forcing them to live under a constant fear of being shut down, even if one of its members engages in any activity that earns the disapproval of the Government.
The bill makes it equally important to protect the identity of others on social media networks. If anyone discloses any information relating to an individual’s personal, family or professional life which makes it possible to identify him/her and puts the individual or his/her family at risk, then the person is liable to be punished under Article 18. While the intention is noble, the practical implementation of such a provision can prove to be very difficult. Social media has a very wide reach, and personal information of an individual can be shared innocently by acquaintances, or even friends. It would be unfair to punish such people, even when they did not possess a mala fide intent to put the concerned individual at risk. The lack of clarity in the bill regarding all these aspects is highly disappointing.
Article 21 of the bill disbands home-schooling and makes it mandatory for children to attend proper schools. Any exceptions to this rule shall be allowed only for paramount reasons like ‘health imperatives’. It also provides for a voluntary dissemination of information surrounding citizenship and republican principles in these schools. General Comment No. 22 on the right to freedom of religion clearly specifies that parents have the liberty to impart religious/moral education to their children in conformity with their own convictions . This may include a conviction to home-school children in accordance with traditional religious practices. Hence, Article 21 stands as a violation of this right, by forcing parents to send their children to schools.
The proposed law also enforces new constraints on religious associations in terms of funding and accounting. The objective here is to create transparency as far as funding is concerned, so that religious activity within the associations is not covered by any sort of ‘mixed, illegal activity’. Once again, Islam seems to be the main religion targeted here. Under Articles 35 and 36, any foreign donation greater than 10,000 euros may be opposed by public authorities. This indirectly contravenes the right of people to manifest their religion in community with others in public by limiting funding, even when it may be required for genuine purposes .
A prominent part of the bill deals with religious policing. Articles 37, 38, 39, 40 and 42 specify sanctions regarding the exercise of religion, even in places of worship. Article 44 allows for the closure of places of worship in advance, in case incitement of hatred against a group of people is detected. Such oversight of religious places like mosques interferes with the right of people to gain access to these religious institutions [10, 11].
States are entrusted with the duty of upholding universal human rights, of which the right to freedom of religion is notable. This right should be equally guaranteed for everyone within the nation, especially when the state in question claims to be ‘secular’. The French view of secularism is definitely unique, in that it promotes assimilation and the ‘French identity’ over anything else . However, such a forced view of secularism is more likely to infringe upon people’s right to freedom of religion, especially when it seeks to control the exercise of religious beliefs in the public sphere. The communities which are disproportionately affected are more likely to reject such ideals, as is already evidenced by the current scenario .
The UN Human Rights Committee and the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion have constantly insisted that laws relating to religious aspects should be drafted with deliberative precision . Since these laws already deal with sensitive subjects, any form of lacunae calls into question the ‘real objective’ of the legislation, thereby decreasing citizens’ support for it.
While the French bill does contain certain pros like banning polygamy and virginity certificates, these benefits are overshadowed by several other provisions of the bill which directly interfere with the citizens’ right to freedom of religion. Additionally, the French Senate has added other discriminatory amendments that severely restrict the exercise of religious practices in the public sphere . Unless such provisions are modified, it is highly unlikely that the bill will benefit the French population at large. Bolstering national secularism is an aim that cannot be obtained at the cost of an individual’s religion.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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