French Interior Minister: “Our action against Islamism is bearing fruit”
France’s Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, and the Minister for Citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, recently gave an interview with Le Figaro, reflecting on the first anniversary of Macron’s speech against “Islamist separatism”, which he delivered on October 2, 2020. Darmanin and Schiappa described how the French government has stepped up its efforts to tackle Islamist extremism in France, particularly after the approval by the National Assembly in July 2021, of the Law Reinforcing Respect of the Principles of the Republic, also called the “anti-separatism” bill. This includes a wave of measures against violent and non-violent Islamist extremism.
Darmanin began the interview saying that around ten Islamist organisations have been closed down in the last four years, claiming that this is three times more than the previous two presidencies. The interviewer suggested that the pace of dissolving extremist groups had slowed down since the closure of the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) in December 2020, to which Darmanin replied that the government has already closed five organisations “linked to political Islam and jihadist propaganda”. Ten organisations more will be closed in the coming year, he said, including four in October. Days just after the interview, on September 29, the Nawa Centre for Oriental Studies and Translation, was formally dissolved. Of the publishing house, the interior minister said it “incites the extermination of Jews and legitimises the stoning of homosexuals”. Of 89 places of worship listed by the French intelligence services and suspected of extremism, Darmanin informed Le Figaro, around a third have been closed down. Procedures are underway, he said, to close down a further six more in Sarthe, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Côte-d’Or, Rhône and Gard.
Darmanin went on to describe a significant change in France’s approach to counter radicalisation. Asked whether it was time to broaden “counter-radicalisation” efforts from 15 key districts, he noted that the more the state has put pressure on mosques and other establishments, such as sports clubs, the more radical individuals or groups have changed location. Extremists’ evasion of the government’s counter-extremism measures by relocating beyond their target geographical areas has prompted a shift in approach:
We are therefore going to move from a logic of territory – these 15 targeted districts – to a logic of profession – cafeterias, organisations presented as charitable but run by Islamists, Islamic bookstores distributing Salafist texts and anti-Semitic writings.
In total, he said, 175 entities will be targeted.
In response to a question about the influence of Islamist extremists on social media, Schiappa, the citizenship minister, said that they have given more resources to the online reporting platform Pharos. Launched in 2009, the platform has enabled the public to report child sexual abuse material, racist and antisemitic comments, hate speech and terrorist propaganda. It was via Pharos that the account of Paty’s killer, Abdoullakh Anzorov, was reported to the authorities. It was also used to identify people who expressed support for Anzorov after the murder. Pharos, the minister stated, now operates 24 hours a day and allows 80% of hateful content to come to the attention of the authorities and be taken down in 48 hours.
Schiappa also said that an “unprecedented” unit to counter extremist narratives had been created within the Ministry of the Interior. It is staffed by around twenty people who monitor social networks, flush out the influencers of the “jihadosphere”, and “prevent the spread of their lies and threats”. She told the newspaper that the government had launched a call for projects worth 2.5 million euros to mobilise civil society in this “counter-discourse” initiative.
Recognising the cultural dimensions of Islamist extremism
France’s counter-extremism approach, as with the UK’s, is driven mostly by counter-terrorism interests. The bulk of measures are aimed at preventing Islamist terrorist attacks by undermining the impetus for such attacks from Islamist ideology and what Macron calls “Islamist separatism”. But there is an acknowledgement of a wider range of problems that, whilst possibly contributing towards a “separatist” attitude amongst Muslims and perhaps violence, are also harmful in themselves, particularly for women and children. These problems, also recognised in the UK’s 2015 counter-extremism strategy, include forced marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation), polygamy, imams seconded from abroad, and the spread of extremist ideology in schools.
The new law prohibits the practice in some Muslim communities of requiring women who are about to be married to have a medical examination to check their virginity, and the refusal of a man to allow a male doctor to examine his wife. The new law also requires city hall officials to interview couples individually prior to their wedding to ensure that they are not bring forced into marriage. It also requires the withdrawal or refusal of residence permits to foreigners in polygamous arrangements. Regarding the tackling of FGM, Darmanin said he has worked with the Group for the Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation to produce a “guide to practices contrary to human dignity”, which will be available to community groups and local elected officials during October. Darmanin conceded that although the new law had been passed, it must now be publicised and enforced. “It is necessary to go through a cultural battle,” he said, “to make sure the law is properly implemented”.
The interior minister also described the government’s approach to tackling the problem of imams seconded from outside France. This is in reference to Macron’s announcement in February last year to cease a programme created in 1977 that allowed nine countries to send imams and teachers to France to provide foreign-language and culture classes. These have not been subject to any supervision from the French authorities. The scrapping of this programme, said Macron, was to give the government more authority over the training of imams, the financing of mosques, and the schooling of children to help ensure that separatist views were not being disseminated in Muslim communities. Although there are some 350 imams seconded to France today, Darmanin said, by 2023 there will be none. He admitted that these imams are not always Islamists, but claimed that they are often the spokespeople of foreign states. Foreign imams may organise worship in France, he said, but it will no longer be possible for them to be paid by a foreign state.
Under the new law, home schooling has become more tightly regulated, requiring families to obtain advance authorisation, rather than simply making a declaration, of a home schooling arrangement. On the topic of extremism in education, Darmanin said that a few dozen schools still pose problems, in particular Qur’anic schools in Islamic cultural centres. They have been very tightly controlled, claimed Darmanin, adding that ten of these schools have been closed for a year. He praised the support of the Ministry of National Education in this endeavour and “the excellent work” of the Minister for Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, “in this fight against radical Islam”. Blanquer has added his voice to Macron’s in making a clear distinction between Islam and Islamism, and in denying the new bill as anti-Muslim. In an interview with Le Figaro in May 2021, he said,
Radical Islamism poses a problem for our society and our civilization on the one hand, and for Islam itself on the other hand … [T]he problem is political Islam, Islam-as-a-political-project for the conquest of societies.
He added that the purpose of education is to transmit French identity – “what constitutes us, what makes us France” – and that this involves “an appeal, at the very least, to a Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian culture, in this case which is our heritage”. This will no doubt rouse accusations of Islamophobia, especially from Islamists, who wish to see Islam recognised as playing an essential role in European history and culture, which, paradoxically, they also seem to despise as a colonial and Islamophobic enterprise.