An escalating crackdown on groups suspected of aiding or abetting Islamist extremists has prompted accusations that the French government is riding roughshood over legal protections in the wake of the gruesome murder of 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty last week.
President Emmanuel Macron has promised to intensify a clampdown on Islamist radicalism in France, days after Paty was murdered in broad daylight in a quiet Paris suburb for having shown and discussed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a civics class.
“Fear must change sides,” Macron told ministers as he chaired an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday.
“The enemies of the Republic cannot expect a minute’s respite,” added his hardline interior minister, Gérald Darmanin.
French police have raided dozens of Islamist groups and suspected extremists since Friday’s attack. The vast majority of raids were not related to the investigation into Paty’s murder, officials said, but part of a strategy to “harass and destabilise” groups suspected of promoting anti-Republican hate speech.
Meanwhile, the investigation has focused on a feverish social media campaign fuelled by some Muslim individuals and groups that preceded the attack, with government ministers directing their wrath at people who helped disseminate the virulent message of one pupil’s father against the teacher.
In a rare move, Darmanin has ordered the six-month closure of a mosque in a northeastern suburb of Paris that posted the parent’s message on its Facebook page. He also called for a number of Muslim groups to be dissolved.
They include the Cheikh Yassine Collective, a pro-Hamas outfit named after the Palestinian group’s late founder, that Macron said were “directly implicated” in the teacher’s murder. The group’s founder, radical Islamist Abdelhakim Sefrioui, is being held by police for publishing a video on YouTube insulting Paty.
More controversially, Darmanin called for the dissolution of the Anti-Islamophobia Collective (CCIF), a prominent watchdog that monitors discriminatory attacks on Muslims. The CCIF was “manifestly implicated” in the chain of events leading up to Paty’s death, the minister claimed, without offering evidence.
Lawyers and analysts have questioned the timing of the clampdown, which comes as the government is under pressure to respond forcefully to an attack that has shocked the nation to the core.
“If these groups and mosques constituted a threat to public order, why were they not shut earlier?” asked Paris-based lawyer Thierry Vallat in an interview with FRANCE 24. He said the government’s timing exposed it to accusations of political opportunism, “and could easily be exploited in court by the groups it is targeting”.
That is, indeed, the line of attack adopted by one of the groups targeted by Darmanin, the humanitarian association BarakaCity, which denounced the government crackdown in a Facebook post on Monday.
“Madness has seized the interior minister who, because he cannot find anything against our NGO, has taken advantage of the emotion caused by the tragedy,” the group said in a statement.
Denouncing a self-serving PR campaign by the government, William Bourdon, a lawyer for BarakaCity, noted that the group had already been cleared of charges after a previous French administration had accused it of channelling humanitarian funds to terrorist groups.
“I’m extremely concerned to see the government rushing headlong into accusations, thereby trampling on a number of cherished principles that underpin our democracy and the rule of law,” Bourdon told local radio station France Info.
Legal experts have also questioned the feasibility of the clampdown, noting that the government will have to provide hard evidence in court to back its claims that such groups constitute a threat.
Enshrined in a 1901 law, “freedom of association” is a cornerstone of French democracy. To justify dissolving an association, the government must prove that it constitutes a threat to public order, that it preaches hatred of individuals or communities, or that it has failed to rein in individual members guilty of the above.
According to Franck Frégosi, a professor at Sciences-Po Aix and a specialist on Islam in France, Darmanin will have a hard time incriminating BarakaCity and the CCIF on ideological grounds. While both defend “a sometimes rigid version of Islam, they are also prudent and mindful of the law”, Frégosi told AFP. He added: “As far as I know, neither has called for murder, revenge or toppling the Republic.”
The government is yet to publish its decrees banning the associations; only once they are made public will the strength of the government’s case become clear, said Vallat.
“Tangible proof could mean individuals ‘retweeting’ the fatwas aimed at the professor or ‘liking’ hateful posts,” he said. “Such elements, gathered on social media, could be used as evidence of activities that infringe on the values of the Republic.”
Describing French administration as a “steamroller”, Vallat suggested there was a reasonable chance the government would succeed in striking down one or more of the groups it has targeted. However, it is almost certain they would eventually reappear under a new label, he cautioned.
“They’re like two-headed hydras: if you cut off one head, a similar one will soon emerge under a new name,” he said. “It is much easier to do away with a name than it is to root out a hateful ideology.”
Above the law
Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and expert on radicalisation, said recent efforts to ban violent far-right groups, such as the neo-fascist Social Bastion, had shown how difficult and frustrating it is to combat extremist outfits.
“When the effort [to dissolve a group] succeeds, alternative groups soon spring up. And when the effort fails, the group emerges strengthened,” she told FRANCE 24.
In the case of the CCIF, Bouzar stressed the troubling message the government is sending by eliminating a high-profile group whose primary mission is to combat discrimination – at a time when many French Muslims already feel marginalised.
She also questioned the legal grounds of the government’s offensive.
“We know the ideology of many members [of the CCIF], who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood. But under French law, they have every right to hold such beliefs,” she said. “If France tries to curb such rights, it would soon be at odds with European law,” Bouzar added, noting that the European Court of Human Rights closely monitors the religious freedoms of individuals in EU member states.
“In its choice of rhetoric, the French government sometimes appears to place itself above the law,” Bouzar lamented. “The law must be enforced, without waiting for such horrific attacks to happen. But at the same time, we must not let an emotional response override the rule of law.”