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French move to extend ban on religious symbols sparks fears of 'radical' secularism

Veiled women demonstrate in Paris on May 18, 2013.
Veiled women demonstrate in Paris on May 18, 2013. Fred Dufour, AFP

Weeks after a far-right politician unleashed controversy by asking a woman accompanying children to remove her veil, the Senate on Tuesday approved an amendment that would extend a ban on wearing religious symbols to those supervising school trips. Some say French secularism is becoming too extreme, while others believe it is being used to shroud Islamophobia.

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France's Senate on Tuesday approved an amendment that would extend a controversial 2004 law banning people from wearing overt religious symbols – including the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippah and large Christian crosses – to the adults accompanying children on school trips. The law currently prohibits such symbols from being worn in all public institutions including schools, libraries and government buildings.

The latest amendment was proposed and voted through by a Les Républicains majority in the Senate in a latest sign that the conservative party of Nicolas Sarkozy is shifting further right. President Emmanuel Macron's La République En Marche party is firmly opposed to the bill and enjoys an overwhelming majority in the lower chamber (National Assembly) so it is unlikely to pass into law. But the proposal has relaunched a debate that has roiled France for more than 15 years.  

The amendment was first proposed in July, but it captured public attention in mid-October when a councillor from the far-right Rassemblement National party (National Rally, formerly the Front National), Julien Odoul, released a video of himself confronting a woman attending a regional assembly meeting with a group of schoolchildren. In the video, Odoul demands that she remove her Islamic veil “in the name of laïcité” (secularism) – an ideal that is an integral part of France's national values. 

‘Legal but not necessarily desirable’

As Odoul’s video went viral on social media, his actions drew varied responses from Macron’s party. Marlène Schiappa, the minister for gender equality, wrote on Twitter that “it is by publicly humiliating mothers in front of their children that we create divisions” in French society, noting that the veiled woman was with her own child, who started to cry when Odoul demanded that she take off her veil.

“Who does he think he is, stigmatising someone who is accompanying children on a school trip?” the government’s official spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye, told France 3 television. 

Some senior cabinet members framed the issue differently, arguing that wearing a headscarf while supervising schoolchildren is no crime – but that it should not be encouraged. Wearing the veil in such situations “is legal, but not necessarily desirable”, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told radio station France Info. 

“The law does not prohibit veiled women from accompanying children, but we do not wish to encourage the phenomenon”, which is “not in agreement with our values”, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, told BFMTV.

Macron seemed reluctant to enter the fray, staying silent on the issue until he told an audience at the opening of the European Judaism Centre on Tuesday in Paris that “those who want to sow hatred and division” sometimes use the principle of secularism to “target particular religions”.

But the president appeared to balance those remarks by telling the socially conservative magazine "Valeurs Actuelles" (Real Values) in an interview published Wednesday that while he remained opposed to the Senate's latest bill he would fight against all forms of "communitarianism” – referring to a form of self-segregation among immigrants that France feels is antithetical to successful integration. 

While for Les Républicains the proposal to ban the veil on school trips is part of a “desperate search for traction”, Macron finds himself “trapped between his own desire not to talk about it and the fact that laïcité has become such an important value for many voters”, said Emile Chabal, a specialist in French politics and modern history at Edinburgh University. 

Moreover, Macron's moves reflect his tendency to “look to the right as opposed to the left when the going gets tough”, Chabal said. 

Culture wars

It may seem strange to associate secularism with the right when the concept has traditionally been identified with the left. The idea originated in the totemic 1905 law on the separation of church and state, which was driven through by a staunchly secularist left-wing government after France's decades-long struggle for ascendancy between the Catholic right and anti-clerical left. 

Ever since 1989, when France experienced its first such media storm over the “Headscarf Affair” – in which three Muslim girls refused to attend school because their principal's insistence that they not wear the veil – “the never-ending public controversies over laïcité have been incited through the sense of culture wars propagated by the right, and especially the far-right”, said Itay Lotem, a lecturer in French studies at the University of Westminster. 

For Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen, who has sought to rehabilitate the far-right party since she took its helm in 2011, "fights over laïcité are the gift that keeps on giving”, Lotem said. Such debates “allow people to express Islamophobia without resorting to language that can be easily dismissed as racist”.

In this context, “the changing focus of debates on Muslim headscarves – from pupils to women who wear burkini to go swimming and then over to mothers who perform a benevolent service [for] their children’s classes – also reflects a growing radicalisation of the laïcité argument”. 

Despite its appropriation by populist nationalists, the “political and intellectual classes” remain “very much attached to the concept of laïcité”, said David Lees, a French politics expert at Warwick University. This, in turn, has “translated into a lack of clear and consistent challenging of the extreme-right’s narrative around Islam and French society”.

At the same time, “the French as a whole” tend to see laïcité as “part of their national identity”, Lees noted. This means that such measures as the ban on wearing religious symbols during school trips “inevitably garner support for the right and extreme-right – and the centre-left and centre have tended simply to follow this path without really asking any difficult questions”. 

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