French government attacks Muslim population

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The French Senate has voted by an overwhelming margin, 276 votes to 20, to approve legislation banning the Islamic headscarf or hijab and other ‘conspicuous religious symbols’ from being worn in French schools. The vote repeated a similar landslide in the lower house of the French Parliament, 494 votes to 36. Almost the whole French establishment has denounced the wearing of Islamic headscarves by young girls to school, with parliamentarians vying with one another for who can espouse ‘secularism’ the loudest. Ironically, only Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, has opposed the law, on the grounds that it is a cosmetic exercise and does not sufficiently confront the problem of immigration.

Both French women’s groups and French Muslims, including women, are divided on their approach to the ban. On International Women’s Day, Muslim women marched both for and against the law.

The division of church and state in France, and the consequent introduction of secular education, are a legacy of the French Revolution of 1789, and, like the abolition of the monarchy, progressive developments that no socialist or communist can fail to support. However what Jacques Chirac’s right-wing government is bringing in here is more in the
tradition of persecution of believers of another faith than that of enlightened atheism.

The issue is not new. Muslim girls who insist on wearing the hijab have been sporadically expelled from French schools during the past 15 years. However the current debate occurs during a period of intense world conflict, centred on wars that are depicted as being between an enlightened and democratic ‘west’ and Islamic fundamentalism. Imperialist war abroad is mirrored in racism and racist legislation at home, as we have seen time and again in Britain. That France did not support the latest onslaught on Iraq is irrelevant, and in some ways has made Chirac even keener not to be seen as soft on Islam in France.

The law is a fundamentally racist one, and any rhetoric about protecting young girls from oppression must be seen as exactly the same hypocrisy that David Blunkett and previous British home secretaries have mouthed on such subjects as arranged marriages. The aim of the French government is to attack the already marginalised and impoverished urban French–North African community that for generations has suffered systematic discrimination in housing, employment and education, and whose young people, both men and women, are, in the absence of a credible left, turning increasingly to radical Islam.
Nicki Jameson

FRFI 178 April / May 2004