Muslim headscarf debate divides France, in climate of hate
When a far-right French official disrupted a regional council meeting to demand that a Muslim woman accompanying a group of schoolchildren be ordered to remove her headscarf, “in the name of our secular principles,” her own child buried his head in her shoulder and cried.
The scene has triggered a venomous national debate that is scrambling questions over the headscarf, Islam, immigration and radicalisation.
The clamour reached a crescendo with the shooting and wounding Monday of two Muslims outside a mosque in southwest France by a suspect with past links to the anti-immigration National Rally party. The 84-year-old alleged gunman told investigators he attacked “to avenge the destruction of Notre Dame,” Paris’ grand cathedral ravaged by fire in April — which he blamed, inexplicably, on Muslims.
In other times, the October 11 confrontation at the council meeting in Dijon might have been but one more instalment in France’s decades-long battle with itself over how to define, and enforce, secularism, a principle inscribed in the constitution more than a century ago to ensure neutrality regarding religions.
But today’s uproar illustrates the growing unease — even contempt — by some sectors of society towards those Muslims seen as failing to join the French melting pot. Such views aren’t limited to the far right: The conservative-led Senate approved a bill Tuesday banning mothers from wearing headscarves on school field trips, and a survey by the Ifop polling firm published Sunday suggested that eight out of 10 French think secularism is in danger.
Some contend this shows the normalisation of Islamophobia in France.
“The veil (headscarf) is seen as the symbol par excellence of religious visibility” and is “seen by some ... as linked to radicalisation,” said Nicolas Cadene, No. 2 in the government’s Observatory of Secularism.
“We’re in a climate of a meeting of fears, emotions, instincts,” he said in an interview.
For Cadene, French society is growing polarised as one part increasingly turns away from religion while another, notably Muslims, grows more visible. The attack inside Paris police headquarters early this month by a Muslim intelligence employee that left four dead raised already percolating tensions, he said.
In all cases, he said, the debate shows the confusion over the 1905 law separating church and state, the basis of the country’s unusually important secular identity. He said the law is not meant to protect a “mythical identity, white and of Catholic culture” promoted by some.