France: Headscarf ban fuels racism, Islamophobia

November 17, 1993

France has been absorbed by a debate over the right of young Muslim women to wear the hijab, which includes the Islamic headscarf, in state schools.

Last July, President Jacques Chirac appointed a commission to consider the question. The commission submitted its report in December, which recommended a law banning the wearing of "ostensible religious signs" in schools — clearly aimed at the hijab. Chirac accepted the recommendation with alacrity. On February 10, France's parliament adopted the law by a majority of 494 to 36.

France has not been spared the wave of Islamophobia that has swept the West since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. This has been grafted to the existing chronic and widespread anti-Arab racism in France. That an unpopular right-wing government, soon to face regional and European elections, should try to divert attention from other issues, such as unemployment, government attacks on public services and workers' rights, and try and pick up votes in the process, needs little explanation.

Though it is far from certain that Chirac's diversionary manoeuvre will work, the ultimate beneficiary of the wave of Islamophobia and racism that has been stirred by the debate around the ban will be the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

How could the wearing of headscarfs provoke such a national crisis? Why is much of the French left supporting the law, or opposing it half-heartedly?

France, like most European countries, is now a multicultural society. However, the dominant policy of the French ruling class has been to not allow immigrants to be integrated in their diversity, but to force them to assimilate into the pre-existing French "identity". This worked fairly well with successive waves of Catholic European immigrants.

It is much more problematic with a Muslim population that has its own cultural and religious identity. And it is not just that French Muslims are maintaining their traditions or that young women are being forced by their families to wear the hijab — though they sometimes are. Many young Muslims have reacted to the racism and discrimination they experience by reaffirming their Muslim identity. Wearing of the headscarf is only one expression of this.

It is this refusal to assimilate that the French establishment finds unacceptable. This view is supported by 70% of French public opinion — and by three-quarters of France's teachers.

The fact that French national identity is heavily laced with references to the values of the revolution of 1789, with its separation of church and state, has disarmed much potential opposition to the law from the left. The theme of women's oppression has also been utilised to justify the law — including, with great hypocrisy, by the government itself.

The social-democratic Socialist Party is in favour of the law, as is the far-left Lutte Ouvriere (Workers' Struggle). The Communist Party (PCF), the Greens and the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) are against, but often on the basis that the "problem" of the headscarf can be dealt with in the schools without a law.

Some reactionary Muslim fundamentalist groups are trying to exploit the situation.

Fortunately, a broader opposition front is emerging, involving civil rights groups, feminist and anti-racist movements, trade unionists and Muslim organisations. It is supported by the Greens, some PCF MPs, the LCR's youth organisation and many LCR members. A large rally outside parliament and a public meeting took place on February 4. Demonstrations were held in Paris and other cities on February 14.

[Murray Smith is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party resident in France.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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