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In France, veiled union leader sparks another secularism debate

Video grab, AFP | Union President at Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV) Maryam Pougetoux walks down a street in Paris, on May 2, 2018.
6 min

A controversy sparked by a student union representative's headscarf during a TV interview has reignited ongoing tensions over this Muslim headgear and its place in France’s secular state.


When Maryam Pougetoux, spokesperson for the left-wing student union UNEF, was interviewed on TV earlier this month about government university reforms, she had no idea her brief appearance would spark such a fierce online debate on French secularism.

It wasn’t what she said, but what she was wearing. On May 12, speaking to a journalist on behalf of her union which opposes the reforms, the articulate 19-year-old appears on screen wearing a hijab – a Muslim headscarf that left her face uncovered but concealed her forehead, neck and ears.

Shortly after, Laurent Bouvet, a political science expert at Versailles Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines university and staunch secularist, posted a damning comment on Twitter which reignited an ongoing polemic about the role of religion in French public life. Intellectuals, philosophers and politicians waded in. Even Interior Minister Gérard Collomb got involved, saying he thought the woman’s headgear was "shocking".

‘It’s as if I was wearing an enormous cross’

“It is important to be a role model and we can see clearly here that there is cultural friction within the young Muslim population,” he told BFM-TV.

Another minister, the outspoken State Secretary for Gender Equality Marlène Schiappa, said that the student representative wearing a veil was a "way of promoting political Islam".

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of France’s hard-left opposition, said that although the young woman hadn’t done anything illegal, her appearance comes at a time when religion is playing a bigger role in society. “It’s as if I was wearing an enormous cross,” he said.

“Since Bouvet made his conclusions based on her appearance and not on what she said, this is a clear case of judging a person on mere intent," commented philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, who said Bouvet's comments were clearly Islamophobic.

Openly Islamophobic

The UNEF was quick to defend its spokesperson. “If Maryam is being attacked it is because she is a Muslim woman wearing a veil and with responsibilities in the union… Hiding behind [Laurent Bouvet’s] supposed debate on excluding secularism is openly Islamophobic,” it said in a press release published two hours after Bouvet’s message.

twitter UNEF polemic

'It’s the same debate all over again'

This latest polemic is one of a number of incidents involving religious Muslim garb in France in recent years, which raise the question of Islam's place in France’s secular state. In 1989, three students in the town of Creil north of Paris were banned from a public school because they refused to take off their headscarves. The incident prompted years of debate which led to the 2004 law banning "ostensible religious symbols" in school. More recently in 2016, a number of French mayors decided to ban women in burkinis on their beaches, before their rulings were overturned.

“Whether one thinks the ‘Creil affair’ in 1989 marks the beginning of the building of the ‘Muslim problem’ (Islam being represented as being incompatible with the secular republic) or what we consider being the first step made by political Islam to free itself from secular society, it is a turning point,” wrote Libération, which quotes Françoise Gaspard, co-author of the book ‘Le foulard et la République’ (the Veil and the Republic). “It’s the same debate all over again. Things haven’t changed. From the veil to the burkini, only the object changes,” she told the newspaper.

My headscarf is absolutely not a political symbol

On Sunday, Pougetoux, member of a French Muslim family, grandchild of WWII resistance fighters, literature student at France’s renowned Sorbonne university and representative of one of the country’s leading student unions, finally responded to the debate she unwittingly unleashed.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, she defended her choice to wear a hijab.

“My veil does not play a political role. It is my faith. Of course, it is visible but that does not mean that I am preaching. I need to justify it, although I should not have to," she deplored.

Pougetoux explained that she wears a veil “out of choice and religious conviction, within the law, and given this, there shouldn’t even be a debate about it. My headscarf is absolutely not a political symbol", she insisted.

By wearing a headscarf in her role of union representative, Pougetoux was not breaking the law. In France - which became a secular state when the state and church separated in 1905 – it is forbidden to wear religious symbols (these include Sikh turbans, Jewish kippas, headscarves or large crosses) or other "ostensible signs of religion" if you work for the state, for example in a public school, a public transport company or in a hospital. Pupils in state schools and universities are also banned from wearing them. A more recent law passed in 2011 forbids anyone from wearing garments which cover their face including burkas, niqabs, cagoules and masks in the street and in the public space generally.

And so, the debate rages on. “What’s behind this? To know whether or not she is sufficiently French, or if she is a good French citizen?” ruling party MP Aurélien Taché said Monday on Europe1. “On secularism, the French president said that French state was neutral, but not society," Taché added.

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