France: the land of cheese, wine, strikes, secularism and Marine Le Pen. There is no doubt that occasionally politicians come out with lines that they later regret saying (Donald Trump anyone?), but last Tuesday’s call from the left-wing French Prime Minister to ban Islamic headscarves is probably one he will go on to rue for a while. The claim was almost immediately shot down by many of Manuel Valls’ colleagues within the Socialist party including the education and higher education ministers. However this debate is not a new one in the highly secularist French governing structure, “Secularism is our DNA” as Valls said on Tuesday. But aren’t these calls going too far and to what extent is the French government just waging a discriminatory war against Islam?
Ever since the 1905 law on the separation of the Churches and the State, France has followed a strict policy of Laïcité (secularism) which, while originally meant to separate the state from the Catholic Church has, in recent years, been arguably discriminatory towards Muslims. Back in 2004 France banned religious symbols in state schools in what in any other country in Europe would have been incomprehensible. In addition to this, you are barely even allowed to speak about religion in state schools. While schools should not be forcing religion on their students – I went to a Church of England primary school where we had to sing hymns and pray during assembly even though the headteacher and 90% of the pupils thought it was complete rubbish – there is certainly a place for learning about all religions in schools. It is evident that as people become more educated about what each religion really represents the stereotypes and discrimination will reduce. And there is no doubt that this is a problem in French society: a poll in February showed that religious stereotyping is alive and prevalent, with 56% of people saying Jews in France ‘have a lot of power’ and 56% saying they would react ‘badly’ if their daughter married a Muslim.
The ban on wearing the burqa (Islamic headscarf that covers the whole face except for the eyes) in public places was made into law in France in 2010. The ban was said to be put into place for security reasons, as wearing face coverings made it harder for people to be identified (the law also banned publicly wearing balaclavas and full body suits). Penalty for breaking this law is a 150 euro fine added with ‘citizenship education’, implying that those who broke this law are not ‘real’ French citizens, creating an atmosphere of alienation.
France (and indeed, much of Europe) is going through many social problems and divides right now. There exist vast racial and class divides in France and the law banning face coverings was seen as an exacerbation of that social divide. When it was implemented, it was seen as nothing more than discrimination against Muslims. In fact, studies show that attacks against women wearing burqas or niqabs (a headscarf similar to a burqa) rose dramatically after the passing of the law. This climate of fear resulted in many women who were these headscarves just not leaving their homes, alienating them from the grander French culture.
The problem of alienation and lack of integration, especially amongst Muslims, has led to huge problems in both France and its little sister Belgium, as were shown in both the Paris and Brussels attacks in the past 6 months. There is no doubt that France’s protectionist values, both of her culture and economy are some of the strongest in the Western world. An example of this came in late 2013 when a government report recommending reverting years of strict secularist policies in order to better integrate the country’s immigrant population was labelled by the leader of the opposition (Jean-Francois Copé) as “an attempt to make multiculturalism the new model for France”. Another example is the frankly ridiculous ‘Pork or nothing’ argument that started in a small town outside Paris and went on to received international attention. Right wing mayors in several towns have decided to play politics with four-year-old children’s school lunches, scraping pork-free options which means that on days when pork is being served these children will be offered nothing but the side dishes. According to Marine Le Pen this move was necessary to “save secularism”. There is no doubt that immigrants arriving in France should abide by the laws and accept the culture of that country. However as a country with over 6 million Muslims living in it (9.6% of the population), it is evident that France is by definition multicultural: not just a country of baguette eating, beret wearing mimes, but also one of halal eating, turban wearing kebab vendors.
One argument given for banning headscarves in France is that they are symbols of oppression. Women in various Islamic countries are forced to wear them against their will, making them signs of horrifically domineering and violent patriarchy and one in which dissent is met with harsh penalties. However, is what France is doing really better? In these Islamic countries, they force women to wear Arabic clothing, which is terrible. But in France, we are merely forcing women to wear Western clothing. A prime example of this hypocrisy are the calls from Air France flight attendants refusing to have to wear a scarf and shapeless clothing when flying to Tehran. There is no doubt that Iran forcing its conservative Islamic principles on women is wrong. However, the freedom to dress however you want and of religious expression (both within reason) should be central values to a country such as France, a nation in the heart of Europe literally and culturally. We are committing the same crime; acting like we are stalwart defenders of women’s rights whilst simultaneously giving women fewer freedoms.
For better or worse, there is no doubt that religion is huge part of many people’s lives and suppressing people’s rights to expression is not the direction that a progressive country in the heart of Europe should be taking. If we really wish to give Muslim women more freedom we should be integrating them and their communities into society so that they themselves can decide, with free will, whether or not they wish to cover their hair. While I believe that the state should be separate from religious institutions France has evidently taken this to the extreme and we must not forget the most important three words in French history “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. France must treats its citizens equally by giving them the same freedoms to truly achieve a sense of unity.
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