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OPINION - FRANCE'S VEIL BAN

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OPINION: When France banned the burqa it ‘created a monster’

A French professor who has spent years studying the impact of France's burqa ban tells The Local it has been a "complete failure" and even helped create a real threat to France.

OPINION: When France banned the burqa it 'created a monster'
Has France's so-called burqa ban been successful? Not for some critics. Photo: AFP

Five years after France introduced its controversial ban on wearing the full Islamic face veil in public, the subject still bitterly divides opinion.

While public opinion polls suggest most French are in favour of the so-called 2010 burqa ban, as is the Socialist government, some experts who have studied its impact tell a different story.

Agnès de Féo, a sociologist and filmmaker who has explored the subject for ten years and studied the impact of the 2010 law, says it has been “a total failure”.

‘We created a monster’

She argues it has both encouraged Islamophobia as well as given Muslim extremists more cause to feel the need to rise up against the French state.

“We created a monster,” De Féo tells The Local.

“Those who have left to go and fight in Syria say that this law is one of things that encouraged them. They saw it as a law against Islam. It had the effect of sending a message that Islam was not welcome in France,” she says.


(A woman wearing a niqab (C) arrives to visit the yearly meeting of French Muslims organized by the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) in Le Bourget, outside Paris, on April 6, 2012. Photo: AFP)

The 2,000 or so women who wore the niqab before 2010, “were hardly a threat to French culture or society” De Feo says, unlike the home-grown jihadists who represent a real menace to social cohesion in the country.

“These are people who want to kill, they want to be martyrs,” she says.

In May last year the French government said there were 137 French women fighting in the Middle East, including 45 teenagers.

Defenders of the 2010 law, brought in under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, argued that its main aim as part of a security measure to bar anyone from being able to hide their identity in public.

Secondly supporters said it would help promote freedom and respect for women. Those who flout the ban are subject to €150 fines, while some undergo citizenship courses.

But critics, like De Féo argued at the time that the law was simply brought in to win votes and pander to Islamophobes.

“Islamophobia works very well in France,” she says. “Both on the right and the left”.

“People had the impression that the women wearing the veil were abused by men. But in ten years I have never met a woman who was forced to wear the veil by a man,” she says.

“People presented this cliché that Muslim women needed to be saved from men.”

De Féo says the 2010 ban has only helped to normalise and encourage Islamophobia in France.

“We now live in a society where people think it’s normal to insult Muslim women wearing the full veil just because they are disobeying the law,” she says, pointing to several unsavoury incidents in recent years including women being attacked and having their veils pulled off their faces.


( A picture taken on January 9, 2014, shows a woman wearing a niqab, a type of full veil, as she walks in a street in the center of Roubaix. Photo: AFP)

“The more these women are insulted, the more they feel they are not accepted in France. It’s a total rupture with society.”

She argues the law has encouraged the kind of “communitarianism”, which France is ever desperate to avoid, because those who insist on wearing the niqab stay in the housing estates where they live.

“The don’t leave for fear of being insulted or stopped by police,” de Féo says.

Before 2010 there were considered to be only around 2,000 Muslim women wearing the veil in France, but according to De Féo the motivation for many women who wear the veil now has altered.

Many niqab wearers are young converts, single women and often divorced.

“Before the ban most Muslim women wore the veil for religious reasons,” she says. “Now a lot of the women who wear the niqab, started doing so after the law was introduced. They converted to Islam and began wearing the veil because it became an identity to them.

“For them it’s an act of resistance against the state, just like the punk or skinhead movements. That’s why they are happy to pay their €150 fines.”

Nicolas Cadenne from France Secularism Observatory agreed.

“Certain women who wear the veil just want to provoke. They wear it in public to cause annoyance or fear and they are not scared of the police,” he told The Local.


(Women protesting the burqa ban in 2010 show identity cards to police. Photo: AFP)

One niqab-wearing woman in France confirmed that view to Le Monde newspaper.

“It’s my way of fighting, to say no to the government, who took away my liberty,” said a woman named Leila who began wearing the veil after 2010.

That view is backed up by the figures released from France’s interior ministry to coincide with the five year anniversary since the law was brought in.

Since the burqa-ban came into force a total of 1,623 stops have been made by police and 1,546 fines of €150 given out, but only against 908 women.

That’s because many of those controls have involved stopping repeat offenders. Indeed one woman has been fined 33 times and five women have been fined more than 14 times each.

And the number of fines being handed out is on the rise, with 234 being issued in 2011 compared to 397 in 2014.

The way the law has been applied has also been a problem with many police officers more inclined to turn a blind eye, especially in sensitive suburbs, where relations between local youths and police are already fraught.

In 2013 one police check on a woman wearing the veil provoked three days of rioting.

Despite the views of De Féo and other critics, the ban seems here to stay.

In 2014 it was given the backing of the European Court of Human Rights.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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