Nonetheless, the first applications of the law have started to show their effect on religious freedom. In the Loire region, the imam of the Saint-Chamond Grand Mosque, Mmadi Ahamada, was dismissed on July 23 for delivering a sermon on Eid al-Adha (19-23 July) considered “contrary to the values of the Republic”. He referred in his sermon to the Quranic verses of the surah Ahzab pertaining to the wives of Prophet Muhammad, which state: “O wives of the Prophet, […] settle in your homes and do not display yourselves as women did in the days of ‘pre-Islamic’ ignorance”. After a video of his sermon was shared online, the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Moussa Darmanin, asked the Loire Governor’s Office to dismiss him and to ensure that his residence permit will not be renewed. Darmanin described the imam’s statements as “unacceptable”, “against gender equality” and against the “values of the Republic”, although the imam said that the verses had been taken out of context.
Similarly, in the province of Hauts-de-Seine, Imam Mahdi Bouzid was terminated by the interior minister’s order, because he criticized the style of some Muslim women during a sermon on June 4 2021 at the Gennevilliers Mosque. He allegedly criticized some women for “lacking modesty” and “being dressed by the demon”, particularly “those who share makeup lessons or outfits that highlight the shapes of their bodies on social media”. On June 13, Darmanin asked the governor to intervene, and to suspend the mosque’s activities if a similar sermon happened. Imam Mehdi has filed a complaint against the Minister of Interior for abuse of power, after stating on social media that his sermon was “addressed to Muslim women, not women in general”, and that he was “talking about free choice in religious practice”. Darmanin, in turn, confirmed on his Twitter account that the two imams had been dismissed upon his request. Some human rights advocates have criticized the Minister for targeting imams and for asking the governors to dismiss them, as it looks as if “imams are appointed by governors in France”.
The debate over the new bill has generated significant critique regarding the respect of basic human rights and freedoms, especially concerning the Muslim community in France. The far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon (president of La France Insoumise group), for example, called the bill “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Republican”.
On March 29 2021, before the Senate’s debate on the bill, Amnesty International (AI) issued a public statement to express concern about the bill’s lack of respect of basic rights and freedoms. AI specifically questioned the vague concept of “republican commitment” advanced by the law, which could lead to abuse of freedoms of expression and association.
Amnesty International offered suggestions to avoid religious discrimination such as the allocation of public funds to organizations “in a non-discriminatory manner” and the commitment to fair treatment for the groups and individuals who do nor share the government’s positions on religion. AI also underlined that “the dissolution of an organization is one of the most severe restrictions of the right to freedom of association and should only be imposed as a last resort, where there is clear and present danger resulting from a flagrant violation of the law” and that any such dissolution should be ordered by a court (rather than an administrative authority).
Finally, Amnesty International argued that while the government’s justification for the bill focused on tackling “radical Islam”, it failed to define the notions of “radical Islam” or “separatism”, as well as to provide information or data to justify its specific focus on those phenomena. In this regard, AI recalled that to conform to the principle of non-discrimination, the French authorities should refrain from adopting measures that could e directly or indirectly undermine the legal protection due to any “religion or belief, ethnic origin, nationality or migration status”.
Macron’s “anti-separatist” bill is seen by many as as an attempt to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of the 2022 presidential election – which analysts consider will likely come down to a run-off duel with the far-right Marine Le Pen. Taking this into account, more cases of sanctions against religious practices, sheltered by the new law, are to be foreseen in the coming months.