Secularism, laïcité and France’s obsession with the veil

Last month, in the city of Drancy in the Parisien banlieu, where 80 years ago Jews were held in camps before being put on trains to faraway work and death camps, potential 2022 French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour (whose Islamophobic bile is claiming more and more space on the airwaves) was involved in a TV confrontation. Live on Cnews—although some have accused him of staging the scene—Zemmour confronted a veiled woman on the street, imploring her to take off her veil. When she finally did, stating very clearly that she was doing so because she chose to, because she was free to choose, he said to her:

voila, trés bien, vous voyez, là vous respectez la laïcité!”

( there we go, very good, now you’re respecting secularism)

Zemmour is a fascist journalist, a TV pundit, a wannabe politician who has publicly preached about his fear of the “great replacement” of white European civilisation by Islam and who, rumour has it, will run for office in 2022. In amongst his many Islamophobic policy ideas are the illegalisation of non-French first names and the full ban of any type of veil in public space (both the burka and the niqab have already been illegal in all public space in France for ten years). When he justifies these demands, along with his rallying calls of full-assimilation-now, it is under the guise of wanting to protect France’s laïcité – it’s secularism, particularly in its public institutions.

The education system, as a closed and controlled space through which everyone has to pass and over which the state can exercise close to total control, has long been the pefect place to hash out this laïcité. I’m in teacher training just now in France and in the months before starting the course, was tormented with images of teachers waiting outside school gates to force young girls to take off their veils, in the name of freedom and liberty. Working as an anarchist inside any kind of system like this is going to throw up a lot of problems, and it’s been shocking to see how deep the rot in the system is. I’m going to be teaching history, geography and French in technical colleges, with a demographic who have struggled in the mainstream high school system and in a city where my classes will often have a Muslim majority.

The first time in our curriculum that we had a class about pedagogy and class management, there was an hour allocated to discrimination. In the document we were given, we were told that discrimination can exist in many forms: anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and racism. I asked the teacher why Islamophobia was not on the list and he explained that the laws about laïcité are in place to make sure that we, as teachers, can’t tell who is Muslim and so therefore we cannot discriminate. I asked him if the same rules apply to Jewish students, and if so, then how would it be possible to perpetuate anti-Semitism? He reddened and explained to me that it’s not okay to question the existence of anti-Semitism, but that he would strongly advise me to forget this word “Islamophobia”, and that for many working in education, the concept itself is a radical, unhelpful (and therefore unFrench) import, much like de-colonialism or separatism.

In France, the system of National Education began to take the shape it has today at the end of the 19th century under the watchful eye of secular top-dog and colonial racist Jules Ferry. He wanted to overhaul education, to free it from the power of the Catholic church, and the series of laws he was involved in passing made education free, secular and obligatory for boys and girls between the ages of six and twelve. Today, 1905 is still the date we cling to when we talk about laïcité and it was in this year that a law was passed which would formally separate the church and state, an idea that had been germinating since the revolution just over a hundred years earlier. In France, with the endlessly slow and confusing system of public officialdom, if you are a teacher, you are a representative of the state, and thus are duty bound to propagate this laïcité, along with the other “values of the Republic”, a phrase which becomes, year by year, more and more of a racist dog whistle.

Laicité is a value, but it’s also a process, and one which has more liberal applications, along with more conservative ones, which has its own philosophers, a national week of laïcité, and even a designated laïcité officer in every school. Broadly speaking, there are two principal camps in France today: those who think that that the laïcité of the country is being threatened by a growing religious (read Muslim) presence and those who think that laïcité is being used as a weapon of oppression against that same religious community. It feels important to say that the first of these two camps represents a majority in the media and in politics, and that it is not just populated by the Right, but also by a zealous secular Left, who think we need to diminish the power of all religions, and for now it just happens to be Islam that won’t get in line.

But whether this laïcité comes from the Left or the Right, it can throw students into conflicts of loyalty between their home lives and their school lives and creates, somewhat unsurprisingly, a feeling in Muslim youth, that they do not “belong” to French society. Often you will hear students of north African descent, whose families have been in France for generations, talk about how French people are, and then how Arabs are, as though the latter could never be the former. This is a discourse on which Zemmour counts heavily – assimilation or exclusion. Interestingly, his family are Algerian jews who got their French citizenship in 1870 from the Crémieux Decree which naturalised the fast-assimilating Jewish population but not their Muslim counterparts, unless they were willing to provide documents proving that they had renounced Islam. A hundred and fifty years ago these conflicts about the necessity of assimilation for Muslim communities were already expressing themselves in French legal practise.

Often, this discourse around assimilation and laïcité crystallises around the veil. In September 1989, in Creil, l’affaire du foulard exploded in the French press. The head teacher of a school would not let three veiled students come to class, claiming that their veils were a breach of the laïcité of the establishment. Over the next weeks and months the country was disturbed, people protesting both in support of students’ rights to wear the veil, and against it, teachers in Marseille even organising a blockade against the veil in their Lycée. In November of that year, the state ruled on it, that the headscarf was not necessarily a violation of laïcité, and that the crucial factor was whether or not a headscarf was “ostentatious”. Over the first few years of the 90s there was a lot of back and forth and in ‘94, a new ruling made clearer the difference between “ostentatious” and “non-ostentatious” signs of religion. Over the course of the following decade, the state treated over one hundred cases of excluded students and eventually in 2003 a commission was formed by Chirac to discuss this and make a recommendation for a new law. Somewhat ironically taking the name of its director, the Stasi Commission would write a report which would find that French institutions (including schools, hospital and prisons) were riddled with infractions of this sacred laïcité, ranging from non-mixed hours in swimming pools, to prisoners being able to express themselves religiously, to people expressing an opposition to blood transfusions. In 2004, after the recommendations of this report, the law was finally passed which forbade all religious signs in schools.


I’m sent on placement, to a car repair high-school, and I sit in on a workshop about harassment, with a class of 16 year olds. I’m shocked when I arrive in the class and the teacher hands me a worksheet about Islamic radicalisation and all the forms it can take. When I ask her, she clears up for me that in fact “radicalisation is one of the most dangerous forms of harassment”. I take a seat in the back of the class, and watch the dystopia unfold. The students arrive, and are told that the class will take the form of a video presentation about radicalisation. A friend who is a teacher will later point out the grim science fiction of this: a class which is 80% Muslim, being sat down to have a “class” which is no more than a state sponsored video about the dangers of their own religious practises. The class is a mess, the students aware of the lack of understanding from the teachers, perfectly aware that what they’re being taught is a load of shit.

At one point, there is a scene in the film which takes place in Paris, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, where a teacher wants his class to study the Quran to see if they can find justifications for the violence in recent events. On the screen, a middle-aged, white teacher with arms full of Qurans is warbling on about France being a cradle of democracy, about the importace of laïcité etc. One of the students in my class puts his hand up and says: “Madame, I don’t want to watch this, this is bad what he’s doing, it’s haram to touch the Quran without doing your ablutions”.

The teachers spins around and starts shouting: “Haram! Haram! I don’t want to hear this word, it’s a book like any other, it’s like a table or a desk or a chair, anyone can touch it.” The student protests and says that she doesn’t understand, but that religiously it’s problematic to touch the Quran like this, that he doesn’t want to watch the film. While he is saying this, the teacher has found a French copy of the Quran and is now waving it in his face, shouting: “LOOK LOOK nothing bad is happening, I’m not going to drop dead, everything is fine”. She’s almost slapping him with the Quran.

How have we arrived here? How can we expected still to believe that laïcité in schools is anything but a way in which to tread on religious students? How, even more shockingly, are we expected to believe that in 2021 it’s actually a tool of struggle against discrimination, as maybe it was in 1905, rather than one which enables it? It seems annodine to even point out that this was not a class really about radicalisation nor about laïcité, but simply about Islam, and how unwelcome it is in French life.

Things get more complicated. Under the fog of COVID, in 2020, a law was brought to parliament to “comfort the respect of the principles of the Republic” and was passed in August of this year, a law known as the “law against seperatism”. The law, one of several right-wing legal proceedures brought in under the chaos of the pandemic, aims to prevent people constructing their social reality in the private sphere and away from the universalist values of the Republic. Amongst other things, the bill forbids home schooling, gives more power to local authorities to close or to sanction religious or public buildings and obliges all charities and associations to sign a contract of republican values. Maybe the fear is that if people can construct a life and community outside of French values, they will begin to question them more and while in general this law aims itself at Muslims, the repercussions againt all seperatist organising (at a cultural level) are not negligent. This means that women-only spaces, as POC-only spaces, can begin to be read as anti-Republican, and thus can be singled out for scrutiny and potential closure.

The problem here is dogma. As Catholicism held dogmatic power over the social and cultural values of French society a hundred years ago, today laïcité has taken it’s place. At its core, it’s supposed to protect freedom of belief and liberty of conscience, values which most anarchists should clearly be behind, but somewhere along the way it has lost its sense of meaning, diverging into a totalitarianism which obliges people to pretend to shed their religion at the school gates in the morning, only to reclaim it at the end of each day.

~L Munro (@pststhr)

Thanks to C, H and M