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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a video conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on Feb. 17, 2021.

GONZALO FUENTES/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, France’s National Assembly voted to implement tough new measures to strengthen the secular nature of state institutions and eradicate what President Emmanuel Macron calls the threat of “Islamic separatism” among the country’s fast-growing Muslim population.

The government bill to “reaffirm republican principles,” which passed by a comfortable majority, was tabled by Prime Minister Jean Castex in December in the wake of the killing of a middle-school teacher who had shown cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to his students as part of a lesson on freedom of expression. But the legislation had been in the works long before that, amid a debate about how to counter the radicalization of Muslims who believe their religious ideals should take precedence over those of the Republic.

The bill now moves on to the Senate, which does not have a veto over the legislation that passes the assembly, but which could propose amendments. Still, it is expected to become law later this year – just as France enters a presidential election campaign.

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Mr. Macron’s championing of this bill leaves little doubt about whom he sees as his principal opponent in the presidential race, the first round of which is set for April, 2022. A runoff election between the top two first-round finishers will be held two weeks later.

A January poll by Harris Interactive confirmed a hardening of French public opinion in the wake of October’s murder of teacher Samuel Paty by a Muslim refugee and the stabbing of three Catholic churchgoers in Nice two weeks later. The survey showed far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen leading on the first ballot and losing only narrowly – 52 per cent to 48 per cent – to Mr. Macron on the second.

The results surely sent chills down the spines of Mr. Macron’s political strategists. In 2017, Mr. Macron had been able to count on an anybody-but-Le Pen wave among French voters on the centre-right and centre-left alike to demolish her on the second ballot, 66 per cent to 34 per cent. Since then, however, Ms. Le Pen has moved to soften her personal image, and she has continued to chip away at support for the currently leaderless centre-right Republicans party.

Ms. Le Pen and her five fellow National Rally members in the National Assembly abstained during Tuesday’s vote. Legislators with the Republicans voted against the bill, arguing it did not go far enough by failing to include measures to combat radicalization in French prisons and on university campuses.

Even so, the proposed measures go quite far, even by French standards. While an outright ban on home schooling was removed from the bill, it would still require parents to obtain prior state approval before teaching children at home. Such authorizations would be granted in exceptional cases only. Online comments targeting individuals, such as the criticisms directed at Mr. Paty before his murder, would be subject to fines of up to €45,000 ($69,000).

The bill extends the ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by state employees to everyone who provides public services, such as public transportation workers. It makes it a crime for doctors to provide “virginity certificates.” A husband who refuses to allow a male doctor to examine his wife – in a hospital emergency ward, for example – could face a fine of up to €75,000 ($115,000). Community groups and sporting associations that receive state subsidies would be required to sign a contract undertaking to uphold republican values, including secularism.

Outright opposition to the bill in the National Assembly was limited mainly to the far-left France Unbowed party, which is accused by its critics on the right of practising a form of “Islamo-leftism” popularized by proponents of U.S.-style critical race theory.

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A growing number of younger French academics have embraced the language of that theory to describe France’s Muslim minority as an oppressed underclass whose deplorable social conditions are a consequence of the country’s strict application of republican principles. Indeed, the French state forbids the collection of race-based data on the grounds that it violates the principle of equality; critics say that this prevents the enacting of policies such as employment equity.

In the run-up to the 2022 presidential vote, Mr. Macron has clearly staked his ground. Though he entered politics on the left as the economy minister under former Socialist president François Hollande, he has tacked increasingly to the right since moving into the Élysée Palace himself. In an October speech, he accused “certain social science theories imported entirely from the United States” of distorting debates over race and religion within France, which has historically viewed those issues through a republican prism.

With the centre-left Socialists and centre-right Republicans in disarray, however, Mr. Macron clearly sees Ms. Le Pen as his main rival as he fights to hold on to his job. Most signs suggest that he’s right.

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