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French Senate adds ban on prayers at universities to anti-Muslim law

The French Senate approved Wednesday the addition of a ban on religious practices in university corridors to a controversial bill that French President Emmanuel Macron’s government believes will combat so-called “Islamist separatism,” but which is seen by rights organizations as an obstacle to the rights and freedoms of the Muslim minority in the country.

Discussing the draft bill, which has been criticized for alienating Muslims, the center-right Republicans (LR) party proposed adding a clause prohibiting prayers in university corridors as well as banning religious activities that might hinder educational activities. Although Left Party senators and Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer objected to the proposal, it was accepted through the votes of the right-wing senators.

While Macron’s government says the bill will highlight the country’s secular system, experts and critics accused the French president of attempting to pander to right-wing voters. They argued that Macron, who faces competition from the far-right ahead of next year’s presidential elections, used the law to thwart divisive rhetoric and they see it as a populist movement.

On Feb. 16 this year, France’s National Assembly approved the bill, which will be debated in the Senate on March 30. It is expected to return to the National Assembly after a vote is held.

The bill allows intervention in mosques and the associations responsible for their administration as well as controlling the finances of associations and nongovernmental organizations belonging to Muslims. It also restricts the education choices of the Muslim community by preventing families from giving children a home education. The bill also prohibits patients from choosing doctors based on gender for religious or other reasons and makes “secular education” compulsory for all public officials.

Human rights group Amnesty International said earlier that the new regulations “would be a serious attack on rights and freedoms in France.”

“Time and again we have seen the French authorities use the vague and ill-defined concept of ‘radicalization’ or ‘radical Islam’ to justify the imposition of measures without valid grounds, which risks leading to discrimination in its application against Muslims and other minority groups,” Amnesty International’s Europe researcher Marco Perolini said, adding that “this stigmatization must end.”

France announced the anti-Muslim bill after the gruesome killing of a French teacher in October last year by an 18-year-old suspect of Chechen origin. The teenager attacked Samuel Pati in broad daylight, killing him outside a school in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, a suburb about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from central Paris. A few days after the murder, the government launched a crackdown on Muslim organizations, while vigilante groups attacked mosques.

The proposed law, with the title “Supporting Republican Principles,” directly mentions neither Islam nor Islamism in an effort to avoid stigmatizing Muslims. Introducing the bill on the fight against separatism, Prime Minister Jean Castex stressed that it “is not a text against religions or against the Muslim religion in particular.” He asserted that it is “a bill of freedom, a bill of protection, a bill of emancipation from Islamist fundamentalism” or other ideologies pursuing the same goals.

Macron has become a figure of hate in some Muslim countries with many boycotting French products after the French president defended Charlie Hebdo’s provocative caricatures attacking the Prophet Muhammad. He has also been forced to the defensive by critical headlines in influential English-language media outlets such as the Financial Times and The New York Times. Muslims in France – the former colonies of which include predominantly Muslim countries in North and West Africa as well as the Middle East – make up about 6% of the population.

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