An escalating breakdown of groups suspected of aiding or abetting Islamist extremists has sparked accusations that the French government is fighting hard over legal protection in the wake of the gruesome assassination of 47-year-old teacher Samuel Paty last week.
President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to intensify the fight against Islamist radicalism in France, days after Paty was assassinated in broad daylight in a quiet Paris suburb for showing and discussing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a bourgeoisie.
“Fear must change sides,” Macron told ministers as he chaired an emergency cabinet meeting Sunday.
“The republic’s enemies cannot expect a moment of respite,” added his tough 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 Pity’s murder, officials said, but part of a strategy to “harass and destabilize” groups suspected of promoting anti-Republican hate speech.
Meanwhile, the investigation has focused on a feverish social media campaign run by some Muslim individuals and groups that preceded the attack, with government ministers directing their anger at people who helped convey the student’s father’s virulent message to the teacher.
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In a rare move, Darmanin has ordered a six-month closure of a mosque in a northeastern suburb of Paris that sent the parents’ message on its Facebook page. He also called for the dissolution of a number of Muslim groups.
They include the Cheikh Yassine Collective, a pro-Hamas outfit named after the Palestinian group’s late founder, whom Macron said was “directly implicated” in the teacher’s murder. The group’s founder, radical Islamist Abdelhakim Sefrioui, is being held by police for posting 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 “openly implicated” in the chain of events leading up to Paty’s death, the minister claimed without providing evidence.
Lawyers and analysts have questioned the timing of the downsizing, which comes as the government is under pressure to react strongly to an attack that has shocked the nation to the core.
“If these groups and mosques posed a threat to public order, why were they not closed 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 targets”.
It is in fact the line of attack that was adopted by one of the groups targeting Darmanin, the humanitarian association BarakaCity, which on Monday condemned the government’s breakdown in a Facebook post.
“Madness has gripped the interior minister, who, because he can not find anything against our NGO, has exploited the emotions caused by the tragedy,” the group said in a statement.
Samuel Paty’s gruesome murder in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine has shocked the French nation to the core. © Charles Platiau, REUTERS
William Bourdon, a lawyer for BarakaCity, condemned a self-service PR campaign by the government, noting that the group had already been cleared of charges after a previous French government accused it of channeling humanitarian funds to terrorist groups.
“I am very concerned about the government rushing accusations and thereby trampling on a number of valued principles that support our democracy and the rule of law,” Bourdon told local radio station France Info.
Legal experts have also questioned the possibility of squeezing down, noting that the government will have to present hard evidence in court to back up that such groups pose a threat.
Anchored in a law of 1901, “freedom of association” is a cornerstone of French democracy. To justify the dissolution of an association, the government must prove that it poses a threat to public order, that it preaches hatred against individuals or communities, or that it has failed to compel individual members to blame for the above.
According to Franck Frégosi, professor at Sciences-Po Aix and specialist in Islam in France, Darmanin will have difficulty incriminating BarakaCity and CCIF for ideological reasons. While both defend “an sometimes rigid version of Islam, they are also wise and aware of the law,” Frégosi told AFP. He added: “As far as I know, none of them have called for the assassination, revenge or overthrow of the republic.”
The government has not yet published its decrees banning the associations; only when they are made public will the strength of the government’s case become clear, Vallat said.
“Tangible evidence could mean that individuals ‘retweeted’ the fatwas directed at the professor or ‘liked’ hateful positions,” he said.
Vallat described the French administration as a “steamroller” and suggested that there was a reasonable chance that the government would succeed in beating one or more of the groups it has targeted. However, it is almost certain that they will eventually reappear under a new brand, he warned.
“They’re like two-headed hydras: if you cut off a head, a similar one will soon appear under a new name,” he said. “It is much easier to remove a name than it is to eradicate a hateful ideology.”
About the law
Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and expert on radicalization, said recent efforts to ban violent right-wing extremist groups, such as the neo-fascist Social Bastion, had shown how difficult and frustrating it is to fight extremist clothing.
“When the effort [to dissolve a group] succeed, alternative groups soon spring up. And when the effort fails, the group comes out strengthened, ”she told FRANCE 24.
In the case of CCIF, Bouzar emphasized the disturbing message sent by the government by eliminating a high-profile group whose primary mission is to fight discrimination – at a time when many French Muslims are already feeling marginalized.
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She also questioned the legal reasons for the government’s offensive.
“We know the ideology of many members [of the CCIF], which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. But under French law, they have the right to have such faith, ”she said. “If France tries to curb such rights, it would soon be in breach of 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 seems to place itself above the law,” Bouzar lamented. “The law must be enforced without waiting for such horrific attacks to take place. But at the same time, we must not let an emotional response override the rule of law. ”