OPINION: Muslim headscarves are legal in France, so why the moral panic about a sports hijab?

Muslim women in France have the right to wear a headscarf when jogging, says John Lichfield, who laments the wide public outcry in France, including from liberal-minded politicians, that has forced French sports store Decathlon to cancel its plans to sell a runners' hijab.

OPINION: Muslim headscarves are legal in France, so why the moral panic about a sports hijab?
Photo: odua/Depositphotos
France is an emotional country which prides itself on its devotion to logic. When it comes to French public debate about Islam, emotion or prejudice often defy all reason.
Take this week’s vicious row about the sport equipment chain Decathlon’s plan to sell “running hijabs” – head-coverings which allow Muslim women to take part in outdoor sports.
France’s biggest sports retailer was forced to abandon the plans on Tuesday after protests which came from both government ministers and foul-mouthed racists.
Are headscarves banned in France? No.
Can Muslim women – or any other women – cover their hair when they walk down the street? Yes.
Why should it be controversial for a French sports shop to sell a “hijab de running” (forgetting the ugly Franglais of the name)? Is running legally or morally different from walking?

Outcry and threats in France force sports giant Decathlon to scrap runners' hijab

Photo: Depositphotos

Aurore Bergé, the Macron-supporting MP for Yvelines, west of Paris, said: “Sport should emancipate. It should not force people to submit. As a woman and as a citizen, I would no longer place my faith in a brand which abandons our values.”

Anonymous on Twitter said: “Bunch of degenerates…you are betraying the values of the Republic…You are aiding and abetting an Islamic invasion. You’ll end up with the scum in the gas ovens in Poland.”
Note, in passing, the easy skip and a hop from “Republican values” to glorification of the Holocaust.
Much of the confusion arises – or is deliberately manipulated – because the commonly used word in French for a hijab or headscarf is “voile” or veil. The word veil, in French as in English, implies a face covering.
Since 2010, it has been illegal to wear full face-coverings in public in France, including burkas and niqabs. Since 2004, it has been illegal to wear conspicuous religious symbols, including headscarves but also kippas and crucifixes, in French state schools. 
Both of those bans were controversial in their time. Good arguments can be deployed for and against. Both have been more or less accepted without problem.
There has never been any serious suggestion of a nationwide ban on the headscarf or hijab. And yet supposedly serious and non-extremist French politicians deliberately entertain a confusion between “headscarves” and “veils”.
Corinne Lepage, a former centre-right environment minister, said on Tuesday : “This is shameful and I remind everyone that the law forbids face-covering. Decathlon is going to lose more customers than it gains.”
To which “Yann”, Decathlon’s community manager or online spokesman, replied: “We are talking of hijabs here, and not at all about face-coverings. It’s important to use words properly and not create confusion.”
Good try, Yann. He became something of an instant, online hero with his patient, measured responses to some of the vile comments that Decathlon received.
Yann from Decathlon becomes web hero in France for standing up to hijab hate
Photo: AFP
It is a pity that his employer decided, all the same, to give way. After many hundreds of online complaints and some insults and physical threats to employees, Decathlon decided on Tuesday night to abandon sales of “running hijabs” in France. They will continue to be sold in Tunisia and online to the rest of the Muslim world. Similar scarves are already sold by Marks and Spencer in the UK.
There was a similar, brief moral panic in France in August 2016 about the “burkini” – a full body swimming garment which allows Muslim women to bathe in the sea. After a fuss created by Marine Le Pen, it was banned by 30 zealously “Republican” mayors in the south of France. Their edicts were immediately declared illegal by one of France’s public watchdogs, the Council of State.
The arguments used by opponents of the “burkini” and the “running hijab” are roughly as follows.
Imposing head-coverings on women is an infringement of liberty. It denigrates women. It is part of a push by militant Islam to impose its values on the west. It separates, rather than integrates, Muslim women from the rest of society.
Until 20 years ago, it is true, hijabs or headscarves were rarely seen in France and never on young Muslim women. It is also true that there can be an unpleasant pressure on Muslim women in racially-mixed French banlieues (inner suburbs) to keep a low profile and to dress in a “modest” way.
You see far more young men on the streets of “cités” (housing estates) than young women. Girls tend to stay at home or take part in indoor all-female activities.
Arguably, the running hijab and the burkini are ways of breaking down, rather than re-enforcing, this exclusion or marginalisation of some Muslim women. They allow them to take part in activities considered normal by non-Muslims. In any case, it is wrong to suggest that Muslim women wear hijabs only because men force them to do so.
Whatever the arguments, headscarves or hijabs are legal in France – and rightly so. It is absurd to suggest as Madame Bergé and other liberal-minded politicians suggest, that Decathlon should somehow take action which no French government has ever contemplated.
If Muslim women and girls have a perfect right under French law to wear a headscarf on the street, they have a perfect right to wear a secure one when jogging or playing football.
John Lichfield is a journalist based in France. He is the former France correspondent and foreign editor for The Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield

Member comments

  1. I completely believe this is about choice for these women – choice to wear a headscarf to go running rather than not run at all. A headscarf is a scarf, whether its called a hijab or a headscarf! Let people be to live their lives without the judgement of others who think they know better. A woman going running in a headscarf doesn’t hurt or offend me at all, not in the slightest…! I am pleased to see someone out doing what they enjoy and given the means to do so.

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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.