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FRENCH HISTORY

France, Italy or Switzerland – which country is Mont Blanc in?

Towering majestically in the Alps, the mountain of Mont Blanc is naturally completely indifferent to political disputes over borders - but that doesn't stop the three countries arguing over it.

France, Italy or Switzerland - which country is Mont Blanc in?
Is Mont Blanc in France, Italy or Switzerland? Photo by OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

At least 30 million years old, it’s fair to say that Mont Blanc definitely predates the existence of France, Italy and Switzerland, which means that as those countries were being created and drawn onto maps, they had to decide who got Europe’s highest mountain.

Asking which country Mont Blanc is in is a more complicated question than you might think.

The basic answer is that it’s on the French-Italian border, with the majority of the mountain’s bulk falling on the French side. However at least some of the mountain is in Italy and the Swiss canton of Valais also lays claim to some of the lower slopes.

France and Italy have been arguing about Mont Blanc (known as Monte Bianco in Italy) since the 18th century, with the Italians claiming that the border divides the summits of both Mont Blanc and neighbouring Dôme de Goûter equally between France and Italy, while the French insist that the border in fact bypasses both summits, placing the mountains in France.

In total around 75 hectares of land is disputed territory.  

Before that, France was arguing with the independent Duchy of Savoy, within which the mountain stood. Eventually Savoy ceased to be an independent state and its territories have been subsumed into the French départements of Savoie and Haute-Savoie, the Italian regions of Aosta and Piedmont and the Swiss canton of Geneva.

But it’s not just borders that move, the mountain also shifts a bit and in fact the climate crisis is accelerating that process as the Mont Blanc glacier melts, along with surrounding snowfalls, leading to changes is the shape of the mountain range.

The dispute largely involves slightly different looking maps in the different countries though, and it seems unlikely that either side is about to go to war.

Famously-neutral Switzerland is also unlikely to launch a war over this issue, but it is in dispute with Italy over the location of a nearby mountain lodge, which has recently shifted position due to melting snows and glaciers.

While this might sound like something that is only of interest to cartographers, the ski industry is a lucrative one to all three countries, and the mountain lodge dispute has been the subject of diplomatic discussion since 2018.

Signs at the Mont Blanc glacier show visitors how it is receding year by year. Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Increasing changes to the entire mountain range due to rising temperatures mean that these disputes are likely to become more common in the future.

For the moment, however, the dispute remains largely good-humoured – as seen in this Twitter exchange between the French and Swiss embassies during the Euros football tournament. 

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POLITICS

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

As Iranian women burn their hijabs in protest at the country's repressive laws you might have heard people contrasting this to the French 'hijab ban' - but is the Muslim headscarf actually banned in France?

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

What are the rules? Does France have a hijab ban?

No, France does not have a ban on hijabs in public spaces. However, the rules differ when it comes to headscarves and full-face coverings and this can be confusing because both the full-face veil and the Muslim headscarf are often referred to a voile in French.

In 2010, the country brought in a complete ban on clothing that includes full-face coverings – including the burka and niqab. These cannot be worn in any public space in France, at risk of a €150 fine.

The hijab or headscarf, however, is completely legal in public spaces including shops, cafés and the streets and it’s common to see women wearing them, especially in certain areas of the big cities like Paris.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no restriction on women’s freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf.

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 (with the exception of visitors).

Public officials such as teachers, firefighters or police officers are also barred from wearing any overt symbol of their religion while they are at work.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs from state schools. While the law also banned crucifixes and kippas, “it was mostly aimed at girls wearing Muslim headscarves,” explained The Local’s columnist, John Lichfield.

Burkinis are also subject to certain rules. They are not allowed in public swimming pools in France where there are strict regulations regarding dress (Speedos only for men and compulsory swimming caps), but they are allowed on beaches and in other public spaces.

READ MORE: Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

This became a source of controversy during the summer of 2022, when Grenoble challenged the ban on the full-body swimsuit by relaxing its rules on the swimwear permitted in public pools.

In response to the challenge, France’s highest administrative court voted to uphold the countrywide ban in June. 

What about in athletics?

Some federations, such as the French Football Federation, have banned players from wearing the hijab, along with other “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

Other sports, such as handball and rugby, have a more open position.

Are there plans to change these rules? 

Currently, there are no government plans to reverse the ban on full-face coverings including the burka and niqab or to allow the symbols of religion in public buildings, like schools.

There have been attempts to change the current legal framework on the headscarf, however.

In 2021, Senators proposed an to the government’s “anti-separatism bill” that would ban girls under 18 wearing a hijab in public. Several other amendments also targeted Muslim women – such as banning mums from wearing the hijab when accompanying school trips – however these were all defeated in the Assemblée nationale and therefore did not become law.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Are the rules followed?

The rules around the niqab are generally followed and it has become quite rare in France.

However sociologist Agnès De Féo, believes that in the years following its ban, the full-face covering became more popular, rather than less.

She wrote that “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.”

As of 2020, however, fewer women wore the niqab and burka in France than they did in 2009.

The rules around the wearing the headscarf in public buildings are generally respected, but it’s not uncommon for rules around any form of Muslim dress to be over-zealously interpreted – sometimes by accident, sometimes with a cynical political intent.

One key example was in 2019, when Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage after posting a video of himself confronting a headscarf-wearing woman who accompanied students on a field trip.

He cited “secular principles” – arguing that the headscarf’s ban in schools should also extend into school trips.

In response, the country’s Education Minister at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, clarified that that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children.”

There was also controversy at election time over candidates who appeared on posters wearing the hijab, although again this is perfectly legal and doe snot contravene secular principles. 

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