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The controversy has exposed divisions within the centrist ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron which is keenly aware Marine Le Pen’s faction is its chief political foe.
Even the country’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer seemed unable to pick a side, stressing Sunday that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children”, while saying “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society” because of “what it says about the status of women, what it says about our values.
The law in France does not yet include a ban on women wearing headscarves while on school trips, but many in France think it would be a good, if incremental, step. In May 2019, the French Senate, by a vote of 186 to 100, passed such a ban, though the National Assembly then rejected it; French public opinion has, however, moved closer to the policies of Marine Le Pen’s FN ever since the murders in Paris of four members of the police by a Muslim terrorist. One suspects that were the ban on wearing hijabs on school trips to now be reintroduced, this time it would have a good chance of passing in both houses. Education Minister Blanquer admits that the law does not prohibit the wearing of headscarves while accompanying children, but also claims “the headscarf is not desirable in our society” – surely that means that he, and other “center-right” members of Macron’s government, would now openly support such a ban. That proposed law should be re-introduced.
Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also weighed in, saying it was important to allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not, as this promoted “inclusivity”.
To “allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not”? Sure, but there are already plenty of places for them to meet. The most awkward and inappropriate place for these “exchanges” of views between the hijabbed and unhijabbed is in the schools, or when accompanying children on school trips. Should they be talking about such matters in front of children? There are cafes, meeting halls, private homes, where such discussions can take place.
But Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire came to the defence of “a culture in which religion remains in the intimate, private sphere and does not have a place in (the) public sphere.”
And Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin added: “I would prefer that women in the Republic, in France, do not wear a headscarf.”
This suggests that some of Macron’s cabinet would be willing to back more comprehensive bans on the hijab – perhaps applying it not just to schools, but extending it to all government offices, in the spirit of laicite.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament he was opposed to any kind of new law specifically targeting what should be worn on school trips.
He reminded MPS on Tuesday that laws set out in France’s declaration of the rights of man in 1789 and the 1905 law that separates church and states protects citizens’ freedoms of belief and expression of religious belief if it does not provoke public disorder.
“You can wear the veil when accompanying a school trip, but you don’t have the right to proselytise (try to convert others),” Philippe said.
Prime Minister Philippe does not sense the Muslim challenge to the principle of laicite – the complete separation of church and state – that is a cornerstone of the French state, and that is constantly being challenged by the millions of Muslims who have a very different view of religion, and who want it – that is, Islam — to be everywhere visible. He does not worry sufficiently about the triumphalism of Islam, its adherents regarding every victory as a sign of surrender by the Infidels. Their being able to prevent the hijab ban applied to school trips was one such victory. Naturally their hope is now to overturn the hijab ban in the schools, claiming it to be an unconstitutional intrusion of the state into religious affairs.
The controversy is the latest in France over face and body-covering garments which many perceive as inappropriate in a secular country while others argue the garments allow Muslim women to be active participants in French society.
The French state and church were officially separated by law in 1905 to give form to the concept of secularism rooted in the 1789 French Revolution.
In 2004, the government prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools and banned the hijab — a garment that covers a woman’s hair but leaves her face exposed — from classrooms and government offices.
The country with Europe’s largest Muslim population is also deeply divided over the body-concealing “burkini” swimsuit, with opposition to the garment forcing the closure of some swimming pools earlier this year in the midst of a heatwave.
One wishes that Macron himself would step forward with his own views. He who once called for a “French Islam” without ever making clear what that would mean, and how it would be imposed on a recalcitrant Muslim population, took a sterner line after the murders of the Paris police. He insisted that the government would unleash a war against terrorists, an “unrelenting fight” against a “distorted, deadly Islam.” This does not impress, for two reasons. First, we have been promised these “unrelenting” fights before, and nothing changes on the ground. The police, and the public, are inhibited from following up leads, or reporting suspicions, for fear of being labelled “Islamophobes.” Macron should have said “No longer should people be afraid of reporting suspicions, nor the police of investigating individuals, for fear of being called ‘Islampohobes.’ The murderer Harpon eluded a thorough investigation of his Salafist connections, with the tragic results we all see.” Perhaps this time the fight really will be “unrelenting.” We shall see.
Second, there was Macron’s use of the word “distorted.” He’s ready to fight a “distorted Islam.” But the Islam he is fighting is not “distorted”; it is orthodox Islam, the Islam that in 109 Qur’anic verses commands Muslims “to fight,” “to kill,” “to smite at the necks of,” “to “strike terror in the hearts of” the Infidels. He continues to pretend that it is not Islam itself, but some mutant “distorted” version that is responsible for all the terrorism and killing. If Macron cannot bring himself to accuse orthodox Islamic of supporting terrorism, then at least he should refrain from calling the ideology he is fighting a “distorted” Islam. He can merely leave out that pusillanimous adjective. He can promise an “unrelenting fight against a murderous form of Islam” without describing it as “distorted.” That still is not a direct placing of the blame on Islam itself, only against “a murderous form” of the faith. But it at least it does not describe that “murderous form” as a “distorted” version of Islam.
And Macron might take the occasion of this contretemps, involving a hijabbed Muslim mother on a school field trip to the regional parliament, and a member of that parliament, Julien Odoul, to urge that the National Assembly reconsider the proposed legislation it voted down earlier this year, and join the Senate in banning the wearing of hijabs by mothers on school trips. This time, given the Paris police murders, and with a push from Macron and several members of his cabinet who have publicly expressed their support for such a ban, it might pass.
For now, that is enough. That is more than enough.
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