From the French Revolution onwards, France has been a country that values nationalism over other identities, including religious matters. To value religion over French identity is seen as regressive, a willing refusal to adhere to the principles that “define French identity and values.” France has long since valued a secular lifestyle, banning religious symbols such as large Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs, and, notably, Muslim headscarves from schools and public areas. This ban, which has disproportionately affected Muslim women, has led to a long, nasty tension that alienates France from its Muslim inhabitants.
Muslims make up 5.8% of the population of France, totaling 3.7 million people, the majority of which are migrants, and that number is estimated to continue growing. So, how should France help immigrants from a different culture adapt to the French way of living? According to leading officials, the answer is to regulate religious attire to aid assimilation. “The Republic lives with its face uncovered,” the government declared after two women wearing burkas were arrested in 2011. These policies have led to protests and general outcry from Muslim women in France. Halima, a woman who was detained by French police for protesting the ban on headscarves, gave her opinion on the subject in an interview in 2011, saying: “This is the first time I’ve ever protested over anything. I’m not in favor of the niqab, I don’t wear it myself. But it’s wrong for the government to ban women from dressing how they want. Islamophobia is on the rise in France. First, it’s the niqab, then they’ll ban the jilbab, then it will be plain headscarves outlawed.” While it hasn’t gotten to that point yet, this slippery slope remains a possibility in the debate between religious freedom and French nationalism.
Over the years, there have been clear instances where Muslim women have been targetted and harassed, particularly women wearing headscarves. If anything, these bans have exacerbated tensions between France and its Muslim population. Yetto Souiriy reported in 2013 that she felt like an outsider at her children’s school and even in her everyday life in France: “France now seems to be stoking a kind of anger against Muslims. You hear of women having their headscarves pulled off at the market. Even parents at my child’s school look at me differently since I was excluded from trips. I had a lot of hope for the left in France, but in terms of discrimination, nothing has changed. Even in shops, I’ve had people say: ‘Take off your headscarf. You’re only wearing it to be aggressive.’” Hafida Ouhami, a social worker in France, reported: “So I take off my headscarf each morning when I arrive at work, and put it back on again when I leave. It’s a bit like taking off part of my personality, but that’s the law. I’m uncomfortable about politicians now pushing a debate about whether headscarves should come off in private companies and for childminders. It feels like pushing things to the extreme. It feels as if we’re not welcome to be ourselves anywhere.” So, if these bans make so many uncomfortable, why are they still upheld by law?
Countless French leaders have justified these bans, creating further cultural tensions. While the ban may have been to aid the assimilation of immigrants into the French way of living, it appears to have done the opposite, only heightening tensions instead of absolving them.
While French Muslims argue that the ban infringes upon their freedom of religion and expression, many officials oppose this by saying the ban is to create a secular community, one that is undivided by religion. However, the line between ‘secular’ and ‘Islamophobic’ is very thin. While President Emmanuel Macron has been careful to discuss Islamic extremist attacks and incidents separate from the greater Islamic majority in France. Other leaders have not been so careful.
Anne-Christine Lang, a representative member from Macron’s party boycotted the National Assembly when the person to deliver the next testimony wore a headscarf. Later, she was quoted saying: “I can’t accept that inside the National Assembly, the beating heart of democracy, we will accept someone turning up in hijab.” This clearly goes beyond a wish to uphold French nationalism and unity, as her words go so far as to imply that a headscarf is the opposite of democracy.
Yet, when the French Senate voted to pass the bill banning headscarves in public areas they described it not just as a matter of nationalism or Islamophobia, but as a matter of women’s rights as well. “The ruling laid the foundations for the perception that this religious garment is not only fundamentally anti-feminist but also foreign to French culture,” the Senate announced. This is by no means a simple issue with two opposing sides. Some are fervent in their beliefs that Islam does not belong in France. Others believe that banning burkas is a slippery slope that oppresses religious freedom and freedom of expression. Yet, more view the issue as a matter of the oppression of women’s rights in western Europe. The one unifying result of these arguments is an increasing fissure of tension and hostility between the Muslim community and France.