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POLITICS

French left under pressure over violence against women

Two key parties in France's left-wing alliance were Wednesday facing crises after senior figures were accused of violence against women, with a Greens party chief stepping back from his role days after a colleague from hard-left France Unbowed.

French left under pressure over violence against women
Julien Bayou arriving for a meeting with French President in June. He has been "suspended from his role" as co-president of the Greens' bloc due to allegations of abuse. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Julien Bayou was “suspended from his role” as co-president of the Greens’ bloc in the National Assembly (lower house), the party said late Tuesday, after he was accused of psychologically abusing an ex-partner.

“We are a feminist party, and so we place ourselves at the service of women’s testimony… we acknowledged that the only way to show we weren’t pretending and weren’t hiding was a temporary suspension,” Sandra Regol, vice-president of the Green MPs’ group, told broadcaster Franceinfo on Wednesday.

One of the most prominent MPs of France Unbowed (LFI) — allied with the Greens in a broad left alliance against President Emmanuel Macron — Adrien Quatennens on Sunday admitted to slapping his wife.

He stepped down from a senior role as party coordinator.

Party leader and three-time presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon leapt to Quatennens’ defence on Twitter, blasting “police ill-will, media voyeurism and the social networks” while hailing his protege’s “dignity” and “courage”.

It was not until hours later that Melenchon posted another message gesturing towards Quatennens’ wife — too late for many critics.

Macron’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Tuesday that it was “extremely shocking to have someone playing down domestic violence”.

And some 550 feminist activists on Wednesday co-signed an editorial in left-wing daily Liberation calling for Quatennens to resign his seat in parliament.

“When a political group supports a feminist programme, we have a right to expect that it stops protecting assaulters,” they wrote, listing a string of other left-wing figures who have been accused of assault and even rape.

“It’s not up to the assaulter’s friends to judge how serious the crime is and call for their private life to be respected. Private life is political.”

Both the Greens and LFI have set up internal panels to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

A report about Bayou was submitted to the ecologists’ panel in July, prompting allegations the probe had moved too slowly.”

These are volunteers working on cases that are sensitive by definition.

Calm and time are needed to gather testimony and take the necessary decisions,” said Marine Tondelier, expected to stand soon for leadership of the Greens.

Allegations that sexual harassment and even assault are rife in French politics stretch well beyond the left.

In July Damien Abad, a minister in centrist Macron’s freshly installed government, was forced to step down over rape allegations.

He denies the claims and has since returned to his seat in parliament.

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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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