Yesterday, French Minister of Women’s Rights, Families and Childhood Laurence Rossignol (yes, we do have such a minister and yes, its 2016) compared women who willingly wear the Islamic headscarf to “American n****** who accepted slavery” and described Islamic fashion as “irresponsible”. You read that right — in one interview, a French public official managed to insult and hurt Black Americans, Muslims and women. And as weird as it might sound, I was not surprised one bit. I don’t even expect any member of the current French government or representatives to call her out.
France has long had a visceral hatred towards visibility of religion in the public space, and at the moment, particularly when it comes to Muslims. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. You need to dig a bit more into French history and its tormented relationship with religion (especially after the Revolution) as well as the open wounds of decolonization, which is still a taboo subject.
France currently has problematic policies related to integration and forced assimilation. As increasing numbers of French representatives both from the left and the right wing conclude that Muslims as a group cannot be integrated (which, incidentally, is the same kind of narrative used against Jews in the nineteenth century), calls are increasing to define and isolate “French Islam” and implement policies meant to erase Muslim visibility from public spaces. The despicable comments of Laurence Rossignol are the consequences of this on-going institutionalization of anti-Muslim sentiment, comforted and justified by a sort of diehard secularist feminism.
But instead of having their intended effect, these policies are triggering a backlash that is leading to significant communitarianism and a strong identity crisis, especially among second generation French immigrant youth, which has led some to join extremist religious movements who opportunistically fill this identity void. To understand this phenomenon further, a recalling of French colonial history is necessary. The crucial role of France’s colonial past, more specifically in the aftermath of the war of independence in Algeria, has altered the French vision of assimilation, more specifically vis-à-vis Muslim populations.
Islam and immigration in general cannot be disconnected from colonial heritage and the still open-wounds of Algeria’s war of independence, which unconsciously still manifests itself in French society and policies. The history of the war in Algeria has still not been fully exposed, and thus the trauma is still not healed.
Regarding the status of Islam during colonization, with very few exceptions the French Muslims were not considered to be French citizens but rather subjects to whom a Muslim personal status was applied. A full assimilation and an allegiance to laïcité — an indescribably fuzzy concept which implies a strict religious neutrality of state institutions that is paradoxically aimed to protect religious freedom of citizens — are seen as essential conditions to qualify for French citizenship. This is indicative of a trend regarding secularism and laïcité in France in the twentieth and twenty-first century, in which any kind of visibility of religion within the public space is erased, and that the politics of belonging imply a total submission to a strict and narrow interpretation of laïcité, as a sine qua non condition to assimilation. From freedom of religion, France has slowly fallen into freedom from religion. Seen from metropolitan France, the failure of the assimilation of Algeria to the French empire has often been attributed to its Muslim character. This failure validated in the minds of many French citizens the image of a religion that naturally resists assimilation and may also be a threat to the very existence of the state.
The religious practices of first generation immigrants to France are closely linked to their birth culture, rather than through orthodox Islam. Before family reunification, immigrant men did not immerse themselves into French society because they did not seriously consider permanent settlement. They preferred to remain hidden so as to not get any attention from the French authorities, for fear of being deported. Hence, the practices of Islam were often episodic rather than regular and the places of worship were often limited and unsafe. Family reunification policies, however, caused a radical shift in relations between immigrant communities and the French state, as families were formally merged into the French system. But with family reunification, religion became a full part of family life in France. Indeed, the restoration of the family unit and the birth of native-born children have returned Islam to the same central place it held in their home country. Consequently, family reunification, which is a cornerstone of the process of settlement, has led to a movement to build mosques throughout Europe. Hence the movement to increase the number of mosques and the increased visibility of Islam in the seventies was a logical consequence of the integration of Muslim populations rather than an Islamic resurgence or a return to religion.
Thus, with the massive influx of Muslim immigrants from the sixties, Islam was firmly established on French soil. But the demonization of Islam and anti-Arab racism did not facilitate an already difficult understanding between the two communities. The disparity between the widespread depiction of Arabs and the reality on the ground was vast; the image of the Arab being a thief or an extremist was broadly spread at the same time that working-class immigrants lived in the shadows for fear of being sent back to their country of origin. Consequently a strong policy against the visibility of a much feared Islam was triggered, starting with one of its most visible symbols: the Islamic headscarf. The infamous ‘Headscarf Affair’ of 1989 (three Muslim students were suspended from their school in the city of Creil for wearing a Hijab) triggered a wave of public battles that involved public displays of Islam.
I would go even further to say that laïcité was a tool used to cover deeper unresolved problems regarding the status of French public schools with respect to French diversity, the problems of the banlieues, the future of the state-nation linked to immigration and the status of women, especially those with a Muslim background.
On one hand, proponents of the headscarf ban in schools say their opposition is rooted in the wearing of potentially ostentatious religious symbols of any kind at school, which is the ultimate symbol of the French republic and laïcité. Indeed, in the ‘Headscarf Affair,” the status of French public schools was at the core of the debate, not the veil itself. Supporters of a strict laïcité invoked the universality of republican principles to justify the ban. The argument that unites them is the need for all to comply with the laws of the republic, without exception. We should keep in mind that the principle of laïcité is the cornerstone of French national identity, as it is considered a protection of France’s unique identity against the threat of dilution by minority groups, especially when those groups are religious. Hence immigrants from other cultures are expected to adapt and assimilate, and the veil is perceived as a threat to this assimilation and a threat to this unique identity.
Furthermore, the veil is not only considered by some as a sign of religious absolutism and the submission of women, but also as a Trojan horse for fundamentalism. Such a garment is seen as a threat against French values, and another interesting parallel can be made with the adoption of the ban of the full-face covering in 2010 (wrongly named ‘the burqa affair’). Indeed the burqa hysteria was raised in a context of controversial debates on a very instrumentalized laïcité and especially regarding the ‘place of Islam in France’. Former President Sarkozy and his government, supported by politicians both from the right and the left wing and also by women’s rights groups, considered the burqa and niqab as a symbol of an archaic vision of the role of women and a sign of their oppression, and as a threat of the spread of Wahhabism, which is widely seen as incompatible with France’s official Republican values of liberty and gender equality. Eventually, the Act on the prohibition of the concealment of the face in public elevated discussion regarding the social and public visibility of religion, particularly the public visibility of Islam.
When both the rise of the visibility of Islam and lingering wounds of war are combined, a very negative image of French Muslims is spread, threatening their peaceful integration. Thus certain segments of the French population become virulently anti-Arab or anti-immigrant due to a perceived clash of culture and religion and influenced by alarmist media. Within Muslim populations, the weight of a growing and semi-permanent suspicion has led many to withdraw from the public space or put themselves on the defensive.
The unity of France has been achieved at the expense of the affirmation of differences. On the religious level, the French laïc state promotes freedom of religion, but tends to limit religious practice in private and does not tolerate obvious manifestations of religion in public, which are seen as existential threats to French culture. The institutionalization of the difference was outlawed in the name of the founding principles of the French state, namely equality of society and national unity based on the fiction of “People = Nation = State”.
But joining the republican pact does not imply assimilation and the rejection of cultural or religious differences. In reality, the relationship between immigrants and the host society is a relationship of power and domination. This relationship of domination is often coupled with the historical residue of colonization and perhaps even constitutes a natural and unconscious continuation of the colonization process, particularly with respect to the colonial subjugation of populations to the economic, social, and political needs of greater European society.
It’s time for a change. France needs to get over decolonization and rethink the concept of laïcité to be inclusive of diversity, to make all citizens equal before the law regardless of differences of belief or origin. Muslims are simply not the threat France makes them out to be. France needs to allow Muslims to build their mosques and express their identities openly and honestly, in a manner that is both true to their faith yet unambiguously French. French politicians need to stop using legal means to institutionalize anti-Muslim sentiment and honestly engage with Muslim communities to find common ground.
And French Muslims need to respond in kind, by working with authorities to get rid of toxic ghettos which isolate them from larger society, by learning how to share their experiences with their neighbors to promote understanding, to create dynamic new organizations that interact constructively with both government officials and leaders of other communities.
Will this all happen? Given the current climate of distrust on both sides, I’m not sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that it needs to happen.