Schools opened again in France on the 4th of September, only a few days after a ban on certain kinds of long dresses and tunics worn by pupils was announced, as Macron made the most of widespread Islamophobia in France to court far right support and divert attention from class conflict.
In a year when dividends for shareholders in France are at a record high, and when, despite a huge movement of revolt, the Macron government has managed to force through its pensions law, what could be better for the capitalists than to have the people think that the main problem in French society is Muslims? And since the question of Islamophobia can deeply divide the Left, which had been united to defend pensions, there is every reason for the Dom Perignon to be flowing in French bourgeois drawing rooms this week.
Newly appointed education secretary Gabriel Attal announced an extension of the racist law from 2004 which bans young Muslim women from wearing headscarves in school at the very end of August. He said from now on long “abaya” dresses and “kami” male tunics would also be considered “conspicuous religious symbols” and forbidden. This is despite the fact that the two terms are vague, and that the French Muslim Council has declared that the abaya is not a religious item.
All this is based on the government discourse that secularity (laïcité) is under threat from radical muslims. Two thousand teachers have been “trained” in the “application of secularity in schools”, while teacher training courses include a whole unit of propaganda about the dangers of religion in schools. There is an easy online form for teachers to report “violations of secularity”. This scheme has shown recently that “violations” are on the rise, but a closer look at the figures reveal what a racist circus the scheme is. “Violations” include reports on pupils encouraging other pupils to take up praying. But encouraging your friends to take up praying, give up praying, listen to country music or wear Goth clothes is simply a democratic right!
The reporting scheme says there are now between 300 and 700 reports of violations a month. Half of them are about the long dressses pupils are wearing (some headmasters were already trying to ban them). The official report also shows that all the accusations of “violations of secularity” come from the same 170 schools (out of a total of 60,000 schools!). What we are seeing is not some sophisticated fundamentalist plot to destroy the French State by hiding women’s knees, but basically a very small number of hardline headmasters making a fuss. Meanwhile, government and media spokespeople regularly try to make a link between everyday expressions of faith and the horrific murder in 2020 of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by a teenage terrorist (a Russian citizen of Chechnyan origin) who claimed Paty had insulted Islam.
Progress in left opposition to racism
The reason that conservative governments in France spend so much time attacking Muslims is that they know the Left will be hopelessly divided. Sure enough, last week Fabien Roussel, General Secretary of the Communist Party, Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party and Sophie Binet, General Secretary of the CGT union confederation, all approved the government’s decision. Sophie Venetitay, leader of the biggest trade union of secondary school teachers refused to oppose the measure, while the chair of antiracist organization SOS Racisme expressed criticism but not clear opposition to the ban. Large numbers of feminists and left wing activists defend the ban.
Fortunately a few more radical CGT sections protested. CGT Education 93, in the Paris suburbs, explained in a press release that this was “a racist polemic aimed at hiding a political vacuum”, and denounced “a racist and sexist decision to stigmatize Muslim girls”, which was a diversion from the grave problems caused by government austerity. The statement also insisted that the abaya “is not a religious piece of clothing”.
The situation is better than it was some years back. In 2004, when headscarves were banned in schools, the protest rallies in Paris counted a few dozen people and were supported by no major left grouping. When the Niqab face veil was banned in public places and on the street, in 2010, protest rallies were about the same size. But in the case of this week’s attack, leaders of the France Insoumise ( whose candidate, Jean Luc Mélenchon, got seven million votes in the 2022 presidential elections) are loudly denouncing the new measures. This position shows some political courage, since polls show 71% of the population supports banning abayas in school (even 41% of 18 to 24 year olds). 86% of those who normally vote for fascist Marine Le Pen support the government on this question, but also 55% of those who vote for Jean Luc Mélenchon.
Manuel Bompard, parliamentary coordinator of the France Insoumise, denounced a “cruel and dangerous” decision which will set off “one more set of discriminations against young women, particularly Muslim women”. He announced that his party would be taking the case to court in an effort to show that the measure is contrary to the French constitution. One muslim rights association is also planning court action.
Having the largest and most influential force on the left denounce the new measures as discriminatory is excellent news. This progress has been partly pushed by antiracist grassroots networks growing up in the last twenty years, and partly by the dynamic of a France Insoumise wanting to listen to and build on all the fights against injustice in the country. It is striking to see that where only four years ago, the France Insoumise annual summer school invited a well known Islamophobic left intellectual, Henri Peña Ruiz, to speak (He declared “ We have the right to be Islamophobic”), in 2023 the summer school hit the headlines by inviting a well known rapper, Médine, who has been loudly and poetically fighting Islamophobia for years.
The far left New Anticapitalist Party also denounced the decision, despite some disagreements in its ranks. Some less influential sections of the revolutionary left, such as Révolution Permanente, have fully defended the pupils’ rights to religious expression.
The lack of active opposition to Islamophobia among much of the Left means that it is very difficult for young people to have the confidence to organize defiance and resistance. Of course, antiracists would love all the high school students come to school in abayas and overwhelm the ban, but without solid political support, defiance was very rare indeed on the first day back at school, Monday 4 September.
Also, the political opposition which does exist has two important weaknesses. Firstly, it generally concentrates either on purely verbal denunciations in press releases, or on institutional procedures such as going to court. Both of these are essential, but where are the rallies, meetings, leaf-lettings, demonstrations, and, where possible, organization of mass defiance?
Secondly, much of the opposition concentrates on the argument that these long dresses and tunics are not necessarily religious. This pushes the whole debate into a rather foolish discussion of who decides what is religious. We should rather defend the right of pupils to express their religion in public, and thus also demand the abrogation of the 2004 headscarf ban.
The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by 192 countries including France, declares that it is a fundamental human right “in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. The secular principle in French schools was established in 1905 to stop the Church from controlling schools and deciding what gets taught in them. It was not meant to ban religious expression among young citizens. These bans are a racist twisting of the secular principle, instituted these last twenty years. They need to be reversed.