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”
The hijab ban in France, as stated, was initiated with the intent to enhance a secular system; however, this bill directly infringes on the rights of five percent of France’s population. One of the most constitutional ideals in democracy is the stability, predictability, and integrity of the law. French President Emanuel Macron’s hijab ban goes directly against this statement. Macron claims that this law is part of the laïcité, a direct separation between private life and the public sphere. Although this is Macron’s official statement, I view this as retrogression on the freedoms of French citizens.
This ban has done nothing but polarize French citizens, another clear threat to democracy. With the apparent issue of jihadism in France, this ban only makes muslims feel more ostracized and under-represented by their government. One of the standing definitions of democracy is that a freedom to opposition exists, and Jihadists have already been executing this right through violence, and the ban on a key part of their religion will only enforce their motive.
While the hijab ban alone is far from justification to label France as an eroding democracy, it could be one of the first steps. The polarization combined with infringements on the freedom of expression mix poorly and could see detrimental effects in the coming years if nothing is enacted to reverse these laws.
Great job with this post! I have a few comments and questions. To start, I know that many consider religious freedom to be an important facet of democracy, however, do you think it would be essential to call for freedom of public expression of religion in order to have a democracy? If we were to consider a facet of democracy as separation of church and state, could there be a strong argument to make that banning religious symbols in public is more democratic? If people have the freedom to express their religious views in the comfort of their own homes and attend religious services of their choice, I could see why some may argue that wearing religious symbols in public would be interfering with democratic principles.
While that is one argument to be made, I am of the same opinion as you. I do not believe banning traditional Muslim dress is a step in the direction of religious freedom. If “laicite” is supposed to protect separatism, it feels counterintuitive to have the law prohibit religious expression. Hijabs are a crucial tenet of Islamic practice, and empirical findings demonstrate that this ban only increases extremism and anti-Islamic tendencies. If the ban has explicitly created a greater sentiment of hatred towards Muslims in France, then it would be in the best interest of the government to reverse the ban in order to protect not only Muslims, but people of all religions.