How a new headscarf row has reignited French divisions over Islam and secularism

Emmanuel Macron’s ministers have failed to defend a Muslim woman ordered to remove her hijab by a far-right National Rally official.

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How shocking can a headscarf be? In France, these days, the answer is “very”. Last week, during a school trip to the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté regional council in Dijon, eastern France, a woman with a headscarf was shouted at by an official in the middle of the council meeting.

She was a mother accompanying her son and his class on the tour, when an elected official of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN), asked her to remove her headscarf in accordance with “secular principles” and the “law of the republic”. The council’s 15 RN officials left the session in protest against her voile (a French term for veil or headscarf). A photo of the woman embracing her son, who was crying over the public shaming, went viral.

Secularism, or laïcité, was enshrined in French law in 1905, in a decree that separated the church and the state, protected freedom of conscience and guaranteed the freedom to practice religion. The French Secularism Monitoring Centre defines secularism as “not an opinion among others, but rather the freedom to have an opinion”, adding: “It is not a belief, but rather the principle authorising all beliefs, provided they respect the principles of freedom of conscience and equal rights. For this reason, it is neither pro nor anti-religious. On this basis, adherence to a faith or philosophical belief is entirely a question of freedom of conscience for every man or woman.” A secular republic, the centre says, “ensures citizens’ equality in front of public services, whatever their convictions and beliefs”. 

In Dijon, when RN officials asked the woman to remove her headscarf, the regional council president, Marie-Guite Dufay, replied that neither the council’s rules nor the law forbid wearing a headscarf inside the auditorium. “We can ban someone whose behaviour is liable to disturb the session from accessing it,” she said. “There is no reason for this person to be asked to leave.” 

In addition, there is no law banning headscarves inside the council’s building, or any other public place except in schools where teachers and employees must observe “religious neutrality”. A 2010 law bans clothes which conceal someone’s face, but was not applicable in this instance. 

Yet le voile regularly creates controversies in France, and this event was no exception: several ministers from Emmanuel Macron’s government took turns to criticise headscarves. Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer declared on French TV that although not forbidden, the headscarf “is not desirable in our society”. Economy minister Bruno Le Maire added that he would like to see a society “without communitarianism”. 

Perhaps the most unhelpful comment was made by Gérald Darmanin, the budget minister, who said that the “greatest problem” wasn’t a mother wearing a headscarf on a school trip, but the fact that “some girls don’t attend school at all”. These girls, he implied, originate from Muslim families.

Not everyone in Macron’s cabinet had such words: government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye and digital secretary Cédric O (two of the few non-white government members) made more open-minded comments, remarking that they had no issue with the headscarf. Yet the opposite view is widespread in French politics and society.

In French, le voile is shorthand for the Islamic headscarf, itself shorthand for Islam, full stop. Similar controversies occurred in the case of a headscarf-wearing student union spokeswoman and with a contestant on the French version of The Voice. Every summer, French swimming pools ban burkinis, again citing secularism despite this twisted interpretation of the principle defeating its main purpose: to guarantee equal rights and access to all. 

The killings at the Paris police prefecture on 7 October, by an employee who followed radical Islam, have further poisoned the French debate over the religion. The RN official in Dijon declared: “We can’t start the session with a minute of silence for the victims of the prefecture, and then accept this”  effectively conflating a Muslim mother, who had volunteered to help with the school trip, with a radicalised, violent killer. 

The public debate regularly makes this dangerous and baseless assumption. Eric Zemmour, a commentator who has been condemned in court for “inciting hate against Muslims”, is routinely interviewed by the French media and has just started presenting a TV show in which he compared Islam to a “totalitarian organisation” in the first episode. Cergy-Pontoise University has published a “list of radicalisation signs”, ordering staff to report suspicions – with all “signs” related to the Muslim faith. 

An op-ed published in Le Monde on Tuesday and signed by 90 French cultural and media figures called for Macron to “firmly condemn” the attack against the Dijon mother’s headscarf, and warned against a growing “hatred of Muslims”.

“We value secularism as it is enshrined in French law and urgently ask the government and the president of the republic to condemn publicly the attack this woman was a victim of, in front of her own son,” they wrote. “We ask them to say authoritatively that Muslim women, whether they wear a headscarf or not, and Muslims generally, have a place in our society, and to refuse to allow our Muslim fellow citizens be watched, stigmatised, denounced for the simple practice of their religion.” 

Macron has remained silent on the Dijon incident. After the Paris prefecture attack, he called on the French to “fight the Islamist Hydra” by “building a society of vigilance” and reporting “low signs of radicalisation”. In 2018, he said that “wearing the headscarf isn’t consistent with civility in our country”. 

The French suspicion of Islam and the convoluted debate over secularism and the headscarf long predate Macron’s presidency. From former prime minister Manuel Valls, who said in 2016 that Islam has an “archaic vision of women” and asked Muslims for “discretion” in their religious practice, to Jacques Chirac, who as president in 2003 described the headscarf in schools as an “aggression”, it’s French society as a whole that must question its misguided prejudices against the Muslim faith. Not doing so could have widespread political repercussions as soon as 2022

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.