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

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

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

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.

Member comments

  1. Good article,

    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.
    Jim Lockard, Lyon

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    I find a Christian cross to be an eye-catching symbol, but hey – it’s not a Muslim symbol,so it’s ok!

    Everyone knows France is racist against Muslims – quite pathetic, these rows.

    Pathetic anti-religion discrimination… one-sided, obviously.

  4. 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!

  5. Many educated Muslim women bravely wear the veil as well.

    Like Evelyna has actually read the Koran and hadiths, LOL!!!!!! Go away troll.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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….

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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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.