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Published on 17 December 2020

France - France cracks down on 76 mosques suspected of 'separatism'

Interior minister says any found to be ‘breeding grounds of terrorism’ will be shut.

Picture: Gérald Darmanin hailed the ‘unprecedented action against separatism’, but opponents say the government is pandering to the far right. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Published on December 3, 2020, in The Guardian

France’s interior minister has announced a crackdown on 76 mosques that the government suspects of “separatism” and encouraging extremism.

Gérald Darmanin said the mosques would be inspected and any found to be “breeding grounds of terrorism” would be shut.

The move is part of the French government’s ongoing campaign to combat Islamist extremism after a series of terrorist attacks – including the recent beheading of a teacher and the killing of three people in a church in Nice – but has led to accusations it is unjustly targeting the wider Muslim community.

The president, Emmanuel Macron, has strenuously denied that new legislation to reinforce secularism that he outlined at the beginning of October was targeting Muslims. He said the law, under which France would train imams and impose a wider ban on home schooling and controls on religious, sporting and cultural associations, was aimed at tackling radical “Islamist separatism”.

Opponents say the government is pandering to the country’s far right, and the law has prompted angry protests in Muslim countries and from commentators in Britain and the US who have accused the French authorities of intolerance.

On Wednesday Darmanin, who raised hackles by questioning why supermarkets had separate halal and kosher food aisles, said the swoop on the mosques was “a massive and unprecedented action against separatism”.

“In the coming days, these places of worship suspected of separatism will be inspected. Those that should be closed, will be,” he said.

According to an interior ministry document leaked to Le Figaro newspaper, the 76 targeted mosques include 18 of particular concern, eight of which are in the greater Paris area. Two of these, in the Seine-Saint-Denis banlieue, home to a large number of France’s north African community, have already been ordered to close and a third has been flagged up by the country’s security commission.

“Until now, the state has focused on radicalisation and terrorism. Now we’re also going to attack the breeding grounds of terrorism, where people create the intellectual and cultural space for secession and imposing their values,” Darmanin told Le Figaro.

France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe. It is illegal in France to draw up statistics based on race or religion, but the Islamic community is estimated to number about 6 million people.

Darmanin officially announced the dissolving of the high-profile Muslim organisation the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), which the government accuses of spreading Islamist propaganda. The CCIF accused the minister of having “given in to the calls of the far right”.

In October, after a Chechen terrorist beheaded the schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who had shown controversial caricatures from the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo to a class of pupils, Darmanin ordered the closing of a mosque in Pantin, north-east of Paris, for six months, accusing it of whipping up a campaign against the teacher.

At the time, William Bourdon, a lawyer who lodged an unsuccessful challenge to the closure order, said shutting the mosque was “a very serious error” that risked “marginalising thousands and thousands of worshippers”.

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