In early February 2021, France passed a bill which raised tension within the country. The bill has a goal to enhance secular system by “anti-separatism” understanding. However, it has been criticized globally by its polarizing and anti-Islamist nature. The contradiction in the underlying features of policy package demonstrates the “anti-separatism” goal actually increased extremism incrementally with singling out Muslim population.
The debate over minority policies in France is not appeared in 2021. Since 2004, the policies are designed to arrange way of life compatible with French secularism, so called “laicite”. ‘The state neither acknowledges nor subsidizes any religion,’ according to the 1905 Law of Separation (Article 2). This produces a system of mutual independence, with religious freedom (in both individual and communal dimensions) maintained in the private sector and official policies pursued and defended without regard for religious beliefs. However, laicite is not an opposing understanding to religious values but is a principle to provide freedom of religion, whereas this was not the case in practice. The legal principle of laicite has been progressively understood as producing religious neutrality requirements for individuals for at least a decade, and while it originally embraced religious freedom, it now increasingly serves as a legal justification for restricting it. Addressing the controversies within the “laicite” concept, the illiberal dimensions of its applications are clearly threatening liberal democracy in France.
In 2004, French politicians opened the case for a bill that would ban religious symbols in schools which was toward students’ hijab. Within the framework of that law, in 2015, a 15 year-old girl was banned from school for wearing long skirt which was seen as an inappropriate way of clothing according to the French secularity. After her statement about an “ordinary” long skirt, a hashtag #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux became trend in social media to accuse discriminatory views about Muslim individuals in France. This example exhibited how an inappropriate policymaking, so called “secular” understanding contradicts with itself by intervening to human rights using religious practices.
Another attempt came in 2010 under Nicolas Sarkozy. Although he has been warned that such a measure may be anti-constitutional and socially explosive, Nicolas Sarkozy has maintained his desire to outlaw the full Islamic veil today. France became the first country in the Western Europe to impose ban on face veil in public places to eliminate religious separatism. After Sarkozy’s commencement of prohibition, other Western European countries step up to regulate ban in schools, work places and public spaces. With gradually increase in government intervention to individual rights on freedom of expression, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated this year that France must “tackle” Islamist separatism and promote French values. As Macron unveiled his anti-radical Islamic strategy, he stated that his objective was to “free Islam in France from outside influences” and to establish a “Islam des lumières” (Islam of Enlightenment). Therefore, the bill about ban on hijab passed with many critics from all over the world, especially Muslim people in France. Unintentionally, these measures have further marginalized a population that was already on the periphery of society, despite their stated goal of reducing extremism. By preventing Muslims in France from openly practicing and expressing their faith, the government is undermining their sense of self-identity and further alienating them from mainstream French culture. This is because it taints many of the liberal principles with which countries loyal to the human rights paradigm have long been linked rather than a universal interpretation of the Islamic veil, it rests on the assumption that women who wear it have no agency whatsoever, it upholds the ever-expanding reach of regulations and, indeed, restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs, and it discriminates against Muslim women in its actual operation.
To summarize, the weaponization of laicite policy has legitimized islamophobia, increased hate crimes, and further alienated vulnerable populations, all of which will ultimately lead to radicalism rather than away from it. In terms of French liberal democracy, the illiberal tendencies against human rights constructs unreliable use of government power. These examples are significant in a way how constitutional means are used to promote discrimination and create polarization in society by covering the aim with stating “anti-separatism” law. Addition to that, concerning freedom of expression and cultural values, top-down decision-making process challenges with democratic values which creates alienation of a group of people in a country.
Hennette Vauchez, S. (2017). Is French laïcité Still Liberal? The Republican Project under Pressure (2004–15). Human Rights Law Review, 17(2), 285-312. doi: 10.1093/hrlr/ngx014
Laborde, C. (2018). Toleration and laïcité. The Culture Of Toleration In Diverse Societies. doi: 10.7765/9781526137708.00016
The Islamic veil across Europe. (2022) from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13038095
French Muslim student banned from school for wearing long black skirt. (2022) from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/28/french-muslim-student-banned-from-school-for-wearing-long-skirt
*Photo by Getty Images, “Belgium protests, June 5, 2020”