When France enacted its ban on “ostentatious symbols” in public schools in 2004, the so-called “veil ban” was justified under the guise of a warped form of European cultural relativism. It’s just the French way, you see.
Over the years, legislation in France has continued to encroach into the private sphere of Muslim citizens, with a keen focus on women.
Muslim women in headscarves have been prohibited from working in private nurseries. Mothers in headscarves have been banned from school outings. Women in face veils are prohibited from walking the streets, using hospitals or public transport. Students in long skirts are sent home for wearing “religious clothing.” Non-pork alternatives have been removed from school menus.
And all the while, the mantle of “Laïcité” — the formal declaration of France as a secular republic — has been served to rebuff any accusation that the laws were actually targeting France’s largest religious minority.
‘A new low’
Laïcité, France’s modern religion, was heralded as the kind of cultural specificity that could justify trumping some pretty fundamental human rights, from freedom of conscience to freedom of religion. It’s kind of like Iran’s imposition of the veil on the basis of a politicized conception of Islam, but with significantly more sympathetic op-eds.
To quote the French feminist Christine Delphy, in France today, “the dominant demand that the dominated … be like them. And if you don’t play along, well, then it’s only normal that you don’t have the right — among other things — to vote, (…) get a promotion, have a decent home, get a job suiting your qualifications.”
Or even to sit on a beach. This summer France reached a new low, with some beach towns in the south of the country prohibiting women from covering themselves with head-to-toe swimsuits nicknamed “burkinis.” No dogs and no Muslims, the signs could have read.
Authorities cited security as the reason for harassing not just any women, but very specifically Muslim women, as if somehow their mere existence posed a serious threat to public order.
To justify disrobing women on public beaches, the French prime minister Manuel Valls invoked the July attack in Nice — as if the latest security briefings were suggesting that Daesh, or ISIS, was using women in burkinis to launch attacks.
In fact, it was the French authorities using burkinis as their latest excuse to harass Muslim citizens, drawing a dangerous line between some women’s choice of beach wear and terrorism.
Valls may have said Islam is welcome in France, but let’s be clear: The only Islam acceptable in France today is an invisible Islam. When France colonized Algeria, Algerian citizens could apply for French citizenship only if they reneged their Muslim identity. Today, in a France of over 5 million Muslims, it seems that a very similar rule applies.
A human rights group, the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), recorded 905 Islamophobic incidents in the country in 2015.
Meanwhile, large parts of the French political class not only refuse to recognize that anti-Muslim hate is a problem, but in fact think of it as a valid campaign issue.
Today in France, over 60% of citizens believe the influence and visibility of Islam is too great and almost half the population (47%) believe the mere presence of a Muslim community is a threat. Despite finger pointing at the far right, much of this stigmatization has happened under the watch of an allegedly left-wing, socialist government.
A ‘willful blindness’ to inequalities
France has the gall to parade itself as the bastion and purveyor of freedom, all the while using the same discourse to veil its inconsistent treatment of its Muslim citizens.
In which warped universe is it legitimate to claim to assist women — in this case presumed to be under duress — by criminalizing them? In which logic can this possibly be heralded as a marker of feminist solidarity and liberty? How exactly are women deemed to be freer with less choice? And when exactly, is everyone going to call out the emperor on his lack of clothes?
Amnesty International refers to the burkini debacle as just the latest in a series of laws which they argue “indirectly” discriminate against Muslim women. That pretense — the suggestion these laws are not clearly and specifically aimed at humiliating and discriminating against Muslim women — needs to stop now.
France claims to be blind to racial and religious differences on the basis of the Republican ideal. In practice, this has allowed France to maintain a willful blindness to inequalities among different groups, clearly delineated on the basis of race, religion and class.
In France, a Christian citizen is two-and-a-half times more likely to get called for a job interview than an equally qualified Muslim candidate. The same bias has allowed the government to ignore pleas to address accusations of systemic — some say endemic — racism in the French police force.
During the 2012 presidential elections, immigration and other xenophobic issues — from halal meat to single-sex swimming times — dominated the agenda. The far right set the tone and the two main parties simply followed its lead. The result was 20% for the Front National in the first round and a series of historical political advances since then.
A repeating pattern
As the electoral machine begins ahead of the 2017 election, not only does this pattern seem to be repeating itself. Such substantive issues as unemployment, housing and the cost of living are being virtually ignored in favor of fearmongering and populist pandering.
There should be fury in France at the moment over growing inequality, over unaccountable police violence, over a normalized state of emergency, over a political scene bereft of any vision.
To those already feeling left out of power, targeted by state policies and the media, this latest frenzy is simply the most recent manifestation of a constant stream of degrading treatment of France’s minorities.
The debate in France is not and never was about suitable swimwear nor even security. It’s about the limits of acceptable citizenship and today, the message is clear: French Muslims are increasingly being squeezed, economically, socially and culturally.
French Muslims have many problems today, but to paraphrase Jay-Z, a burkini ain’t one.
Myriam Francois is a Franco-British writer and academic. The opinions expressed in the article belong to the author.