French Secularism or Anything But? Part 1: The One Indivisible Republic

The riots in Trappes, an outer-city high rise housing estate, or banilieues, on the outskirts of Paris, left French society on edge for days after in July. Some feared a repeat of the 2005 riots, which saw disaffected youths from urban housing estates such as those in Trappes, clash with police for nights on end before peace was finally restored only by the government declaring a state of emergency. Thankfully history did not repeat itself, but the incident has left much of France searching for an answer as to how this could happen again. There was also much debate in both UK and US media sources about what could have caused such an incident. Much of the comment over here seemed to blame the so called ‘burqa ban’ for the flaring up in tensions. Some commentators going so far as to refer to the 2011 ban as state islamophobia. It is true, France, like many countries in the west, suffers from its parasitic effects, but this ban is not an example of it.

The incident was sparked when two French police officers ticketed a woman for wearing a niqab, a full face veil worn by sections of the populations Muslim followers. What happened next depends on who you believe. According to the woman in question, who’s story has been noted for its inconsistencies, the police officers grabbed her by the veil and forcefully pushed her mother. According to the police however, an institution accused by many in the area of being institutionally racist, the husband of the reprimanded woman attempted to strangle one of the officers who was enforcing what is a widely known law, the ban on covering your face in public.

In this two part report into the Trappes riot, we will look into the real causes that may betray the reasons behind the violence. However, this week, we shall address the issue being put forward by other media outlets, that is, that the violence in Trappes was caused by the enforcing of the ‘burqa ban’, and that the ban itself was some sort of far-right spasm by Sarkozy in a bid to secure votes from the right.

The 2011 ban on covering the face in public cannot be seen as an isolated reactionary incident. The precedent for the ban lies in France’s constitution, which is completely devoted to the idea of the one indivisible republic, made up of citizens all universally equal. Similarly, the constitution places rigorous divisions between the church and state. For these reasons, religion has essentially been barred from nearly all aspects of the public sphere, much unlike the UK, where the head of state is confirmed by the archbishop of the state Christian religion in a cathedral. Religion has become a private matter based on the individuals’ own personal conviction and choice, and is of no consequence to the State, committed to treating all citizens equally regardless. Thus, for sixty years, all state workers have been banned from wearing any outward religious symbolism, be it a crucifix, a turban or a veil, as a method to maintain the state as a neutral arbiter of the one indivisible republic, and betray no personal bias. In 2004, this ban was extended to all public schools, as education, once the domain of the catholic church, is also seen as a key arm of the state, and thus any outward religious symbolism here would undermine the very constitutional fabric of the republic.

The 2011 ban was a policy that saw a great deal of support across the political spectrum as it was again, like the 2004 ban in schools, seen as a natural progression of the French constitution. Many saw it as a way of breaking down the physical barriers between the veiled community and the wider polity, integrating an isolated community into society. For this reason, many Muslim organisations provided support for this measure. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque in Paris referred to as the ban as “the path of wisdom,”

Though other leaders such as Mohammed Moussaoui, the leader of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, did not support the law, he and many other prominent French Muslims supported the discouraging of women wearing the veil. The wider French population were heavily in support of the ban, a Pew Research poll at the time found 82% of French citizens in favour of the ban.

2011 certainly was no zenith either. The state continues to dictate the appropriateness of religious symbolism in the public sphere. Laws are currently being discussed by Hollande’s Socialist government that would see childminders who work for private companies also barred from wearing religious clothing, including the veil.

Thus, a veil ban in France does not have the same meaning as it would do if it were introduced in the UK or the USA. These countries have adopted a radically different approach to community integration, citizenship and their constitutional make-up. Though a burqa ban in the UK may seem a horrific act of state interventionism, it is not comparable to the French situation and thus cannot be argued in the same context.

Despite the fact that the burqa ban is at least understandable if you look at it in the context of French republicanism and the constitutional demand for an indivisible society, it is not to say it is necessarily just and this writer would certainly not purpose that the system can work. It certainly does not seem just for the state to dictate what type of clothes people wear either. Even if they do have the best of intentions, to ban an item of clothing that for many bears such a significance seems a completely misguided and an over extension in state power. It also may well be illegal under European law, and in their eyes may well constitute a breach of human rights, however, this has yet to be properly tested.

Part of the 2011 ban’s key goal was to liberate women supposedly oppressed by wearing the veil, for some a symbol of religious fundamentalism and patriarchal authority. Indeed, this is why many feminist academics, such as Elizabeth Badinter, have been so supportive of these measures. However, according to people to whom the ban affects directly the opposite effect can be seen. Hind Ahmas, a single mother who began wearing a veil before she met her ex-husband, told The Guardian that “the politicians claimed they would be liberating us, what they’ve done is exclude us from the social sphere,” It seems then, though the citizens of France may well be equal and indivisible in the eyes of the constitution, the reality of the situation is much different. Indeed, in issues such as sex and race equality, France lags behind much of its contemporaries. In 2012 the World Economic Forum gender equality report placed France 57th in the world for gender equality, way behind most of its neighbours such as the UK who are 18th, and are almost last in terms of wage equality, in the same report, languishing in 129th place of 135 countries included.

This writer is not arguing that the burqa ban is a positive move for the French state in integrating its veil wearing Muslim community, however, the 2011 ban, nor any of the bans before or after should be misconstrued as knee-jerk right wing bluster. The ban is the pursuit of some of the French Republics most sacred principals and ideals, indeed the very founding principals of the republic itself. From the perspective of a multi-cultural society it seems the French government is demanding integration on its terms, it cannot be forgotten that this method had been very successful in integrating France’s once Balkan-like mosaic of provincial identities and languages, and the later integration of European immigration in the early 20th century and it is these successes that the state continues to strive for.

Next week we will look at how socio-economic factors, as well as a mistrusted police present a more satisfying answer as to why the riots were kicked up in Trappes, using the 2005 riots in direct comparison.