French PM backs Muslim headscarf ban at universities

Christina Sabrowsky / AFP (file photo) | France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that headscarves should be banned by law at universities

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that Muslim headscarves should be banned in universities in comments that have sparked an immediate backlash from some within his own party.


In a lengthy interview with France’s Libération newspaper published Tuesday, the Socialist prime minister was asked directly if a ban on headscarves already in place at French state schools and public-sector workplaces should be extended to universities.

“It should be done,” said Valls, though he admitted that "there are rules in the constitution that would make such a ban difficult”.

France, where the strict separation between church and state is seen as a fundamental part of the country’s values, has some of the toughest secularism laws in the world.

The government banned the wearing of overtly religious symbols, including headscarves and crosses, in state primary and secondary schools in 2004, while decades old laws requiring public sector workers to be impartial mean they too cannot wear any clothing or accessories that express their religious beliefs.

But several of Valls’s colleagues in the ruling Socialist party felt he had gone too far by calling for the headscarf ban to be extended to higher educational institutions.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the education minister, said that such a law could not be imposed on university students because, as adults, they were entitled to “freedom of conscience and freedom of religion”.

“Our universities also have a lot of foreign students. Are we going to ban them access because in their culture there’s a certain type of clothing?” she added during an interview with the RMC radio station.

Higher education minister Thierry Mandon said there was “no need for such a law”.

“These are students who, as adults, have the right to wear a headscarf,” he told RTL radio. “If I have the chance to talk to him [Valls], I will tell him there is no need to act.”


Speaking to FRANCE 24, Eric Fassin, professor of sociology at the University of Paris VIII, accused Valls of “making up a problem”.

“The question of leaving out religion [from univerties] would be just like leaving out politics. Adults are citizens, they have a right to opinions,” he said.

“The only reason for [headscarves] to be banned were if there were problems, [but] everyone agrees – and the presidents of universities have confirmed – there is no problem with the veil, so the Prime Minister is making up a problem.”

‘Secularism in our DNA’

The rights and wrongs of Islamic dress are a hot political issue in France with a long and tempestuous history. While secularism laws in schools and public workplaces apply equally to all religious symbols, some have accused the French establishment of Islamophobia with rules designed to target Muslims in particular.

In 2011, the country banned full face coverings, such as the Muslim Niqab or Burqa, in public. The law sparked widespread and passionate debate between those who argued the Niqab was a tool of repression against women and others who said the ban was discriminatory against Muslims.

The debate has been reignited in recent months following the November terror attacks in Paris and fears of increasing radicalisation among the country’s Muslim youth. Some argue that reinforcing the country’s secular values can help stop the young and disaffected turning to extremism, while others fear it could do the opposite – increasing feelings of stigmitisation and alienation.

Last month, France's minister for women's rights Laurence Rossignol faced calls to resign after she compared women who wear headscarves to "Negroes who supported slavery" when responding to an interview question about fashion brands such as Dolce & Gabbana launching lines of hajibs and "burqini" all-body swimming costumes.

Valls was one of the few government ministers to offer support for Rossignol’s comments, saying earlier this month that the veil was being used as a political symbol for the "enslavement of women".

“Secularism is our DNA. It is normal that we debate it,” Valls said Tuesday.

“The Republic was constructed in opposition to the power of the Catholic Church. Today it is the rise of radical Islam that confronts secularism,” he continued.

“I believe in my country, its message and its universal values. I want us to be able to demonstrate that Islam … is fundamentally compatible with the Republic, with democracy, our values and equality between men and women.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app