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ANALYSIS: Why do so many French people have a visceral aversion to the Muslim headscarf?

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ANALYSIS: Why do so many French people have a visceral aversion to the Muslim headscarf?
The Muslim headscarf is legal in public in France, so why the controversy? Photo: AFP

After living in France for 22 years, I imagine that I understand the French reasonably well. Two things baffle me, writes John Lichfield.


Why do French drivers and pedestrians never show any gratitude when you give them right of way?

Why do so many French people - left, right, conservative, liberal - have a visceral aversion to the Muslim headscarf or hijab?

I know the standard answer to the second question. French politics and society is governed by the principle of secularity (laicité). All religions are allowed; none is favoured.

READ MORE: France embroiled in new Muslim dress row after mother on school trip told to remove her hijab

The law which separated church and state in 1905 was a truce in a long struggle for power between the Republic and the Catholic Church.  It was not an attack on freedom but a guarantee of freedom of religion - and freedom from religion.

Differing beliefs were fine but they must not divide France into “communities” by imposing sectarian rules.

A law to ban 'religious symbols' such as the Muslim headscarf on school trips is to come before the French parliament. Photo: AFP

The latest threat to the secular, undivided French way of life comes from Muslim mothers who go on state school trips wearing head-scarves. The French media insist on using the word “voiles” (veils), which sounds more sinister than “scarves”.

A draft law to ban religious symbols on state school trips, proposed by the centre-right, will be discussed by the upper house of the French parliament in two weeks’ time. Two thirds of French people, according to a poll this week, approve of the idea.

Earlier this month, a far-right regional councillor in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté jumped the gun. 

Julien Odoul  insulted a scarf-wearing, Muslim woman who attended a council meeting with a primary school. Her small son cried and hugged his mother.

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


Photo: odua/Depositphotos

The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, told a TV interviewer last Sunday that he approved of the proposed scarf ban on school trips. Wider opinion in the centrist Emmanuel Macron-Edouard Philippe government is mostly against.

“What the Islamic headscarf says about the rights of women is not compatible with our values,” Mr Blanquer said. “The head-scarf is not desirable in our society.”

In other words, if the education minister had his way, France would ban the religious head-scarf altogether. Presumably, that would also mean banning the Jewish kippa and the Sikh turban.

To understand the debate, you have to go back a little way.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs from state schools. The law also banned crucifixes and kippas but it was mostly aimed at girls wearing Muslim head-scarfs.

For the most part, the law was accepted. It solved what had become a genuine problem for teachers attached to the idea of state schools as a sanctuary for Republican, secular values.

In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for a law which banned the burka, or face-covering veil - but NOT the headscarf - from all public places in France.

Two years later his education minister published a circular which extended the school ban on “religious symbols” to school-sponsored trips. Muslim mothers protested that they were being treated as second-class citizens. They could not accompany school trips unless they removed their scarves.

In 2013, the Council of State, the arbiter of the legality of government decisions, struck down the Sarkozy circular. If it was legal to wear a head-scarf in public, mums had a right to wear them on school outings.

Of all the problems facing France, scarf-wearing Muslim mothers on school away-days may not seem to be the most pressing or destructive. Nonetheless, the issue refuses to die.

A centre-right senator, Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio, tried to smuggle a ban into a wider education law last May. When this was rejected, she tabled a bill which will be given a public hearing in the Senate on October 29th.

In the British and American media it is traditional to mock the French obsession with what Muslim women wear.  I have no doubt been guilty myself. The anti-scarf lobby is often presented as a coalition between right-wing racism and left-wing authoritarianism. 

READ MORE: OPINION - By banning the burqa France created a monster

A Muslim woman is arrested after attempting to wear a 'burkini' full body swimsuit on Cannes beach in 2017. Photo: AFP

My left of centre French friends say that we, the “Anglo Saxon media”, miss the point. Secularism is France’s state religion; the cement which holds France together; the soil in which French democracy grows.

This principle is threatened, they say, by the growth and by the radicalisation of France’s Muslim population (now around 5,000,000 people, not all practising). 

This is not a racist issue, my friends say. For many years French Muslims accepted separation of faith and state. It was rare until the mid-1990s to see a hijab in France.  

Now in some inner-suburbs, women dare not go out in public without a head-scarf. The hijab is not only an affront to women’s dignity and freedom. It has become, my friends say, the spear-head in a campaign by radical Islam to undermine secular values.

Every burkini, every “jogger’s hijab”, every mum in a scarf on a school trip is - consciously or not - part of an  insidious advance by radical Islam.

The argument should not be dismissed out of hand but I believe that it is exaggerated - and counter-productive. Banning Muslim mothers from school trips is far more likely to alienate and radicalise Muslim kids than the sight of a head-scarfed woman marshalling their friends on a visit to the zoo.

There is no chance, short of a Marine Le Pen government, that France will ban headscarves and other religious symbols from its streets. If France is unwilling (rightly) to go that far, it should not persecute hijab-wearing mothers who want to volunteer for school trips.

What news of my other source of bafflement - French road manners? 

Something unusual happened to me in Caen in Normandy the other day. I gave way to a car which was trying to leave a side-street. The driver waved to say “merci”

She was wearing a hijab/head-scarf/voile.


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Anonymous 2020/02/19 09:34
This is a stupid article. You quote the French foreign minister who says the veil runs counter to France's support for women's rights; and then you wonder about how that rule would oppress Sikh and Jewish MEN. The point above the veil is that it represses women. If women were running Islam, the veil would be a different matter.
Anonymous 2019/11/10 19:35
Allow me to correct my "strange quote." What I meant was that women I've spoken with in muslim countries silently wish they could walk down the street dressed modestly, and as they please (just like the male muslim population does). I'm speaking of clothing we take for granted in Europe; elbow length blouse and loose fitting slacks. No scarf is needed to be a modest muslim woman. Today, the scarf has become politicized and has little to do with the 7th century hadith that women be veiled (separated) from non-related males. Given their segregated, early childhood education, today muslim girls as young as 6-8 wear the scarf believing it is based on Mohamed's teaching. The Prophet never taught that. The hadiths following his death dictated the head scarf. I could write at length here so suffice it to say, read the relevant passage in the Quran, best known as the "Verses of the Curtain". Other than that passage, the Quran requires only that BOTH women and men dress modestly. Beyond that, it never requires head, face or full-body coverings of any form for men or women. It's well passed time men and women are treated equally in every part of the world. Out dated, middle ages sharia laws require reforming. A new generation of enlightened muslim leaders/scholars are needed to educate muslim men and women on the actual teaching of the scarf/veil in the Quran. Muslim men in particular need to step up to the challenge.
Anonymous 2019/10/21 08:10
Good article as usual from Mr Lichfield. Also agree with Mr Stone's comment.
Anonymous 2019/10/17 10:49
There are some - very few - women “fighting for the right to walk down the street looking like men” - to quote the strange Evelyna, who has spent years reading Muslim texts yet wants to drastically change, “correct” and disrespect Muslim culture...- but that is certainly a strange goal, and not the democratic goal of half of the Muslim world, certainly. Religious freedom in France? Lol, for Jews and christians but not Muslims. Everyone sees that....
Anonymous 2019/10/16 19:31
Good article. I agree with you. But it should not be forgotten that there are areas of the Paris suburbs where women who do not conform to the Muslim dress code have been verbally or even physically abused.
Anonymous 2019/10/16 17:17
I am NOT a troll and yes have spent years reading koranic teachings. No doubt this is an emotional issue. But my understanding of the issue, including talking to women in Iran and Egypt is clear to me on a personal basis. Kindly wear the veil if that is what you believe, but there is a huge swath of women (muslim and no muslim) who do not share your view. Peace be with you.
Anonymous 2019/10/16 16:52
Many educated Muslim women bravely wear the veil as well. <br /><br />Like Evelyna has actually read the Koran and hadiths, LOL!!!!!! Go away troll.
Anonymous 2019/10/16 16:34
If you bother to study the koran and hadiths you soon learn that the "veil" is a sexist garment that has no place in today's society. Muslim women are directed to cover themselves for fear they "sexually excite" men. Sharia also makes clear that women are secondary to men. Many educated muslim women bravely refuse to wear the veil. Many brave women in Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting for the right to walk down the street looking like men; heads uncovered! Vive la France et merci pour vows efforts!
Anonymous 2019/10/16 16:14
Uh, because they are anti-Muslim racists, obviously. Why don't they have the same reaction for Hasidic Jews, who are all dressed head to toe the exact same - one big religious symbol walking around various neighbourhoods in Paris, with a gaggle of kids with braids in tow, usually. Them, no problem for France! Total hypocrisy. <br /><br />I find a Christian cross to be an eye-catching symbol, but hey - it's not a Muslim symbol,so it's ok!<br /><br />Everyone knows France is racist against Muslims - quite pathetic, these rows. <br /><br />Pathetic anti-religion discrimination... one-sided, obviously.
Anonymous 2019/10/16 11:30
The Canadian province of Quebec has effectively banned the wearing of any external signs of religion cf Hijab, crosses by any public employee under the recently passed Bill 21.
Anonymous 2019/10/16 10:47
Good article,<br /><br />You can legislate behavior, but not beliefs or attitudes. Here is Lyon, one sees women wearing headscarves everywhere, at the mall, the marché, on the Metro. I agree that banning them from school outings (which is also banning Muslim moms in most cases), is not a good approach to the issue and does not set a good example for the children. I also admit that as an expat, I have a limited understanding of French culture.<br />Jim Lockard, Lyon

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