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
- Yann from Decathlon becomes web hero in France for standing up to hijab hate
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.
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