Islamophobia in France
France’s relationship with religion has at times been fraught, with its policy of laïcité provoking much discussion around the place of religion in public life. In the past, laws such as the Burkini ban have called into question how much this form of secularism actually protects the freedom of the French people. Despite heavy criticism and much discussion around these laws, the French government has continued to push laws which limit the freedoms of religious minorities, and especially Muslim women, in France.
While laïcité laws were originally brought in to allow the freedom of French institutions from the influence of the Catholic church, it has been expanded to cover all religions since 1905. Secularism also originally only applied to the state itself and its employees, rather than French society as a whole, but has been widely expanded in more recent years. Islam is the religion most commonly discussed in relation to French secularism, as France is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, though all religions are subject to the law. In a Western and ‘culturally Christian’ country such as France, secularism coexists much more comfortably with the norms and ideals of Christianity than other religions. Christianity doesn’t require the same visible signs of religion that others do, meaning that the laws disproportionately affect some groups. In addition, Christianity still receives more government support in comparison to other religious groups. In the Alsace-Lorraine region, churches still receive state funding, as do some Catholic private schools. Despite state schools being subject to the secular ban on head coverings, Christian customs and religious holidays are still observed.
The Burkini ban in Nice in 2016 received a lot of international criticism when a woman was forced to remove a head covering by police, who said that her outfit was not “respecting good morals and secularism”. This aggressive example of the hypocrisy, when other women would be permitted to cover their bodies on a public beach, highlights the racism that has become ingrained in France’s secularism as well as the cultural elements working against France’s Muslims. Face coverings have been banned in public since 2010, and veils have been banned in schools since 2004. While these laws were intended in part to increase social inclusion between religious groups, research has shown that the face covering ban has actually reduced the integration of Muslim women in French society. This suppression of religious expression in France has been accompanied by a 53% rise in islamophobic attacks in 2020.
Despite its contradictory, disparate and unproven implementation thus far, on the 30th of March this year, the French senate voted further its secular policy to outlaw the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women under 18. This law also includes policies which limit the freedoms of Muslim women, such as preventing mothers who wear the hijab from accompanying school trips. These stipulations seem to be more about limiting the personal freedom of Muslim women than ensuring anyone else’s freedom. A point which has been brought up many times in connection with this new law is the fact that France has recently lowered its age of consent to 15, highlighting the hypocrisy of these contradictory ideas of women’s abilities to make choices for themselves.
The difference in perceptions of Muslims and people of other faiths in France continues to show this hypocrisy. In one case, French officials defended a nun who was refused admittance to a publicly funded retirement home due to her religious clothing, saying that the retirement home had “incorrectly interpreted” the law, and a priest declared that a nun’s veil should not be privy to the law as it is “not a sign of submission but of devotion”.
France’s institution of secularism may have originated from its values of liberty and equality, but it has developed into a hypocritical means of suppressing the religious expression of Muslims in France. Despite the insistence from French officials that the laws are intended to increase liberty and social integration in French society, the fact that the opposite has occurred and that islamophobia has increased in recent years has proven this to be false, while the infringements on women’s personal liberties continue to be expanded.