Is France really planning to ban the Muslim headscarf?

Recent days have seen a proliferation of social media posts protesting against a proposed 'hijab ban' in France - but is there really a plan to ban the Muslim headscarf?

Is France really planning to ban the Muslim headscarf?
Muslim headscarves are not banned n the streets of France. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

What has happened?

The protests started when Somali-Norwegian model Rawdah Mohamed posted a selfie on Instagram account with the hashtage #handsoffmyhijab slamming France’s proposal to ban the Muslim headscarf.

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A post shared by Rawdah 🕊 (@rawdis)

The hashtag, and its French equivalent #Pastoucheamonhijab was shared around the world, including by Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and the US congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

What proposals are they referring to?

These are amendments put forward by the Senate, the French upper house of parliament, to the government’s ‘anti-separatism’ law.

This is a flagship piece of legislation from Emmanuel Macron’s government that aims to ‘strengthen republican values’ and combat extreme forms of Islam which promote separatism and terror attacks.

ANALYSIS What is contained in France’s law against Islamic extremism?

The bill includes a variety of measures such as cracking down on hate speech, limiting the right to home-schooling and giving the government extra powers to limit foreign funding of places of worship – however it does not contain any measures further limiting the right to wear the hijab in France.

The bill passed through the Assemblée nationale – the lower house of parliament – in February and is now being debated in the Senate, where Senators have taken the opportunity to add several amendments targeting Muslim women – including banning mums from wearing the hijab when accompanying school trips, banning girls under the age of 18 from wearing the headscarf at all and banning the wearing of the full-body ‘burkini’ swimsuit.

So does that mean these amendments will be adopted?

No, most political commentators say these measures are highly unlikely to become law.

Under the French political system it is the Asemblée nationale that has the final say on legislation, not the Senate, and Senators have already tried and failed several times in recent years to introduce similar measures further limiting the wearing of the hijab.

Similar amendments were also proposed when the bill passed through the lower house in February and were voted down and France’s Interior Minister has strongly argued against a ban on the wearing of the hijab in all public spaces.

Even if these measures were voted through both parliaments, they would be likely to be ruled unlawful.

In the case of the ‘burkini ban’, several local mayors in 2016 attempted to introduce this, only to have their bans overturned after they were ruled unlawful by the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State).

READ ALSO ‘My body, my choice’ – Muslim women in France on why they wear the hijab

Are there restrictions in France on what Muslim women can wear?

Yes, France in 2010 brought in a complete ban on full-face coverings including the burka and niqab. This cannot be worn in any public space in France, at risk of a €150 fine.

There are further restrictions on the wearing of the headscarf in some public buildings. In line with France’s laws on laÏcité (secularism) it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion – including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings including schools and universities or for public officials such as teachers, firefighters or police officers to wear overt symbols of religion.

EXPLAINED What exactly does laïcité mean in France?

However the hijab is legal in public spaces including shops, cafés and the streets.

Burkininis are not allowed in public swimming pools in France where there are strict rules on dress (Speedos only for men and compulsory swimming caps) but are allowed on beaches and in other public spaces.

Member comments

  1. In my Oxford/Hachette dictionary “laicite”, as a concept, is defined as “secularism” (as in the article). In my Concise Oxford English dictionary “secularism” is a derivative of “secular”, in turn defined as “not religious, sacred or spiritual”, also in the Christian Church defined as “not subject to or bound by religious rule” – presumably Christian Church rule. Additionally there are other meanings not religiously related.
    Unfortunately I don’t have a decent French language dictionary to see how “laicite” is defined in its own language. Can someone help?
    So if “laicite” becomes law as so far interepreted, the possibility emerges of any sort of religious identity, of any faith, becoming illegal. This in turn will lead to a host of scholarly legal interpretation as to who wears what on a daily basis, let alone down on the beach. Don’t forget those dress elements which can be used to disguise recognition for clandestine or vain purposes.
    And if such laws are passed, then the rawdis type of experience (or worse) will need to be sanctioned for the protection of all.
    Does the word “tolerance” come in to this at any point?

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Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.