France faces real threats and challenges from Islamist terrorism and needs to counter radicalization in its society. President Emmanuel Macron has spoken clearly about this and, as I have argued in these pages and elsewhere, his robust defense of free speech following the butchering of teacher Samuel Paty was excellent.
However, beyond defending freedom of speech, much of the French government’s proposed strategy and laws are disturbing. Meanwhile, Denmark has also begun taking some sweeping measures in response to radicalism, though its proposals are less draconian and less noticed. But they are troubling, too.
One common feature of both sets of proposals is that, although the respective governments try to soften the fact that Muslims are their primary focus, and they will certainly affect Muslims, they sideswipe other religious communities. In some cases, they may impinge on them more deeply.
In France, President Macron announced measures that require imams to be trained and certified in France, enhance oversight of foreign funding, outlaw religious organizations that promote ideas “contrary to the laws of the republic,” and ban homeschooling children from the age of three. The government may dissolve religious and other organizations when there is an “affront on personal dignity.”
The Conseil d’État, the French State Council, which does not have direct legal authority but is the highest legal advisory body in the country, has raised concerns about the proposed law. It agrees that “believers cannot claim a ‘religious exemption’ when they breach common laws” but also warns that “they cannot be submitted to obligations not imposed on other citizens.”
French Protestants, about 3 percent of the population, are raising concerns. François Clavairoly, president of the Protestant Federation of France, laments, “I find myself in the position of defending freedom of worship. I never imagined that in my own country something like this could happen.” David Broussard, president of Impact France, has called the moves “libérticide”—“freedom killer.”
Broussard raises, inter alia, three concerns. He notes rhetorically, “What’s the problem? It’s supposed to curb radical Islam. Isn’t that good?” The first thing is that “it doesn’t apply to most Muslims!” In France, most mosques are legally “cultural centers” and are organized under the 1901 law on cultural associations. The new proposed religion law applies to organizations that are formed under the famous 1905 religion law. But 4,000 of the 5,000 registered 1905 associations are in fact Protestant churches, including 90 percent of evangelical churches.
Secondly, every five years, churches and others must apply to their prefecture in order to keep their status as a church, and the prefect can close a church without having any hearing or legal process.
Thirdly, homeschooling would be illegal except for children who have health issues, have particular special sports or artistic activities, live too far from a school, or have other factors specific to the child but whose parents can demonstrate their ability to teach. No exception is made for parents’ religious or philosophical reasons.
Denmark’s proposals have attracted much less attention, both because the country is smaller and the proposals are far less sweeping. But they are still troubling.
The Danish government has said that the law aims to “enlarge the transparency of religious events and sermons in Denmark, when these are given in a language other than Danish.” All religions would be required to have their sermons published and put at the disposal of the authorities. If they are in languages other than Danish, they must be translated. It is not clear what would be the situation of sermons given spontaneously in charismatic or other churches.
In November 2020, the Danish prime minister admitted that she could not assure that an exemption would be approved for religious groups in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, two areas still under partial Danish control, where the population speaks native languages apart from Danish. In fact, in Greenland, Greenlandic is the sole official language. Most people there also speak Danish, but why should a Greenlander preaching to Greenlanders in Greenland’s sole official language be required to produce copies written in the language of its former colonial master? Apart from this, the law could be a financial and administrative burden for smaller religious groups.
Many restrictions on religious freedom stem not from ill will or attempts to target religious practice directly, but simply from ignorance of the possible consequences of laws and regulations. The French proposals, and maybe the Danish ones, go beyond mere ignorance. In this sense they imitate, although at a vastly less punitive level, the Russian statute against “religious extremism,” whose ostensible target was Islamist radicals groups, but which has been used extensively against Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.