OPINION: 10 years after France banned the niqab, French governments are still stigmatising Muslims

Ten years ago France introduced a controversial ban on women wearing the full Islamic face veil in public, but the legislation did not have the desired impact and French governments are still making the same mistake towards the country's Muslim citizens, writes Agnes De Feo, author of a new book on the subject.

OPINION: 10 years after France banned the niqab, French governments are still stigmatising Muslims
A French muslim woman named Karima, pictured here wearing the niqab. Photo: Agnes de Feo
Since 2008 French sociologist Agnès De Féo has been studying the subject of the niqab – the full Muslim face veil worn by women – in France. She has spoken to over 200 women who wear it.
On the 10-year anniversary of the French parliament backing the controversial law forbidding women from wearing the niqab in public places, De Feo explains the real impact of the ban and why French governments need to change their view of the country's Muslim citizens.
On October 11, 2010, a law was passed in France to penalise those Muslim women who wore the full face veil – le voile integral or niqab in Arabic – which at the time only affected a few hundred women.
So as not to target Islam directly, the law was given a neutral title. Officially it was to ban “concealing the face in the public space”.
Ironically, 10 years later, because of the Covid-19 epidemic and the requirement to wear face masks, concealing the face is now mandatory in France rather than banned.
Conversely, shaking hands with the opposite sex has gone from being a compulsory social gesture to being banned.
Ten years ago strict Muslims were criticised for wearing a full face veil and refusing to shake hands with the opposite sex, which was seen as akin to lacking civility. 
The niqab has now become extremely rare in France.
The number of women wearing it in 2020 has fallen below the level of 2009, when the controversy around the proposed law began to flare.
But this drop should not be seen as an impact of the law itself, because it actually resulted in an exponential increase in the act of wearing a niqab in the years following 2010.
That's because the law had an incentive effect: it incited women to transgress the ban by embracing the prohibited object.
Prohibition made the niqab more desirable and created a craze among some young women to defy the law.
In fact more women wore the niqab after the law was introduced than before.

A French woman named Fanny, pictured here wearing the niqab. Photo: Agnes de Feo
These neo-niqabees were drawn to this symbol, because it made them feel like heroines, defying the forbidden. 
These new partisans of full face veils born after the law all had something in common – that they had no religious background. Among this group there was an over-representation of converts to Islam from atheist or agnostic backgrounds. Nothing predisposed them to choose this path of sartorial radicalism.
This craze for the forbidden created a new form of religious observance, away from the mosques, a virtual form developed on Salafist social networks.
At fault for this phenomenon was the huge and overblown media coverage of the bill from June 2009 onwards, which played on mainstream opinion in France.
Following the law some “good” French citizens saw themselves as responsible for enforcing the law themselves. They directed insults, threats and even physical violence towards women who carried on wearing the full face veil.
These women responded to the attacks not by abandoning the niqab but by resistance. They saw them as trials sent by God.
So a standoff then developed between these two sides, which each side justifying the use of insults against the other.
Some women who wore the niqab had enough resilience to get through it, while others choose to go to the UK or the Maghreb in North Africa.
But many simply cut themselves off from all social links with the outside world and entered a spiral of “marginalisation”, in particular by no longer going outside their home and taking their children out of school.
These are the niqab-wearers who would then go on to fight in Syria.
While the title of that law made it seem that it covered all displays of religion, once again it was the Muslim headscarf or hijab that was targeted in particular.
Young girls who refused to remove the hijab were excluded from public schools.
As a result of this 2004 law, there has been an explosion in the number of women born in France choosing to wear the hijab.
Previously the wearing of the hijab only concerned women born in the Maghreb and who arrived as adults in France.
It was also after this law that we saw the creation of Muslim schools to accommodate these girls who had been forced out of public schools.
These are the same schools that President Emmanuel Macron now laments the existence of and accuses of wanting to be separate from the French nation.
Once again a government in France continues to stigmatise French Muslims by accusing them of “separatism”, as Macron did in his recent speech and plan to tackle radical Islam.
But it is the French governments themselves who have created this separation over the last two decades by pushing Muslims to retreat in a self-marginalisation.
The only solution today is for France to accept its Muslims as full French citizens in total equality with others and by treating them with dignity.
In other words by applying the Republican principles of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity towards its Muslim population.

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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.