How Has Islamophobia Transformed French Politics Toward Muslims?

By: Ramazan Kilinc

November 25, 2019

On Tuesday, October 29, the French Senate approved a controversial bill banning parents of Muslim students from wearing headscarves during school trips. The bill came to the Senate after a French far-right official shouted at a Muslim volunteer parent with a veil to take off her scarf during a school trip to a regional council in Dijon in eastern France. The ruling party En Marche, which has the majority in the National Assembly, is opposed to the bill, so it is unlikely to be passed at the assembly.

However, anti-Muslim laws and policies have become the norm in France in recent years. French Parliament banned wearing of headscarves at schools in 2004 and wearing of full-face veils (burqa) on the streets in 2011. In summer 2016, some French cities banned wearing of full-body swimwear (burkini) on public beaches. The recent attempt to ban wearing headscarves by the parents volunteering for school trips follows this trajectory. 

Many scholars and pundits point to French secular legacies to explain discriminatory policies toward Muslims. However, in my recent book, Alien Citizens: The State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France, I argue instead that it is the rise of Islamophobia that has enabled discriminatory policies toward Muslims in France. 

Although the French state has a more restrictive approach toward religions compared to its European counterparts, it never banned students from wearing religious symbols in classrooms until the 2000s. The Council of the State, the highest administrative court in France, had upheld the right of girls to wear a headscarf in school until 2003, provided there was not a disruption of the public order. 

It is not French secularism but the global rise of Islamophobia that has led to discriminatory policies toward French Muslims. 

The September 11 terrorist attacks led to the rise of anti-Muslim attitudes globally. The events that followed the Arab uprisings in the 2010s unleashed the spread of Muslim extremist groups in the Middle East and Europe and contributed to the rise of Islamophobia. 

The rise of Islamophobia and the increasing appeal of the far-right, as a result, changed the terms of the political game in France. The uphill trajectory of far-right parties makes inclusive policies more difficult. Mainstream political parties are concerned about losing their social base to the far-right alternatives. 

Anti-Muslim groups utilized the new environment to expand their support base for more restrictive policies toward Muslims. 

There are at least three mechanisms through which Islamophobia led to restrictive policies toward Muslims in France. 

First, Islamophobia helped anti-Muslim actors portray Muslim religious symbols as representatives of "Islamic fundamentalism" that rejects French secularism, one of the essential pillars of the republic. The clothing restrictions, then, would be a remedy to the rise of "Islamic fundamentalism." This point was ubiquitous in public debates and legislative sessions. Then prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin asked the legislators in March 2004 to support the headscarf ban in the name of republicanism. He said, “I solemnly ask you, whatever your political choices, gather around the bill, which symbolizes our confidence in the Republic and our national will to live together.” 

Second, increased concerns about the rise of Islamism facilitated the access of anti-Muslim actors to policymakers. The French parliament awarded Caroline Fourest, a leading activist for banning the headscarf at public schools, with the National Award of "Laïcité" in 2005. Fadela Amera, who had been very active in anti-headscarf demonstrations, served in the French government between 2007 and 2010.

Third, the rise of Islamophobia marginalized liberal voices who tried to reconcile the ideas of strict secularists and Muslims. The opponents could not establish connections to the policymakers. Politicians refrained from being affiliated with Muslims to avoid stigmatization within an increasingly polarized public.

By capitalizing on Islamophobia, anti-Muslim actors built a broad coalition to ban Muslim religious symbols in public. Former supporters of Muslims gradually joined this coalition. For example, in November 1989, a group of intellectuals, including famous sociologist Alain Touraine and leading anti-racism activist Harlem Désir, described those who supported the expulsion of girls with headscarves from the school as "secular fanatics" and suggested that it was impossible to integrate Muslims into French society without tolerating their differences. However, both Touraine and Désir, along with many other signatories, supported the headscarf ban later. 

Islamophobia continues to structure French politics. This is why we should be prepared to read many stories about discrimination toward Muslims in France.

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How Has Islamophobia Transformed French Politics Toward Muslims?