Islamophobia divides the left in France
John Mullen (LCR Montreuil)
The new school term in France is the first under the new law which bans Muslim girls from wearing a Muslim headscarf to school. The vast majority of the young women involved (in general between fourteen and eighteen years old) have agreed under duress to remove the headscarf in school. The hundred or so who have refused have been separated from their fellow-pupils and kept in a separate room (often with separate break-times, no right to use the library and no attention from teachers, despite the legal obligation to provide teaching). Over the next three weeks they will be called to disciplinary committees and expelled from schools. They will join an unspecified number who have been too intimidated to turn up at school since the passage of the law.
Stop Press :
In a series of schools around Paris, headmistresses and headmasters (primary and nursery schools) have received strict instructions not to allow Mothers with headscarves to accompany school visits to museums, zoos etc. The One school for everybody committee is planning a demonstration Saturday, and also is planning with a good hope of success to challenge the ruling in the courts.
Some organized opposition to the law has been seen - school students have demonstrated in solidarity in Strasbourg and in the Paris suburbs, but the widespread Right-wing-Left-wing consensus in support of the law has made resistance difficult to organize. Nevertheless public meetings have drawn up to a hundred and fifty people a time, and showings of a new film « Thinly-veiled racism » containing long interviews of Muslim women about their experiences at school are drawing good audiences when shown at community centers around the country.
The existence of the law is encouraging Islamophobia everywhere in France. Over the last few months there have been cases ranging far beyond schools. A bank has refused to serve women in headscarves, a doctor has refused to treat them. Social workers, a health and safety inspector and even a fruit and vegetable saleswoman have been sacked for wearing the headscarf. Mayors have refused to marry women, mothers wearing the headscarf have been turned away at the school gates when bringing their children to school. The demonization of Muslims since September 2001, allied with the high level of racism in France all too happy to become respectable as « Not against Arabs but against Islam » is the main explanation for all this, but the French situation is quite specific, and there are other elements which can be difficult to understand from abroad.
The most shocking characteristic of the present situation is the open or tacit approval of Islamophobia shown by the Left in France, including parts of the revolutionary Left. One revolutionary organization, Lutte Ouvrière, marched literally side by side with the right wing Minister for women’s rights against the headscarf back in March. Members of Lutte Ouvrière have voted to expel students who will not remove their headscarves. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, the other main revolutionary organization in France, is split down the middle. Some LCR teachers have voted for expelling the young women, including a teacher who is a member of the national leadership.
The national leadership of the LCR has taken a position of « Neither the headscarf, nor the law ». They have said they are willing to campaign against the law, but only in alliance with organizations which denounce the wearing of Muslim headscarves as a sign or women’s oppression. The result is complete inaction, though a few dozen dissident members have like myself become involved in the « One school for everyone » committees which have sprung up in a dozen or so towns over the last few months.
The debate within the Left shows a staggering ignorance of Muslims in France, and of Muslim organizations. Those who organize against this racist law are accused of allying with Muslim fundamentalists. In reality, not only are the fundamentalists very weak in France, but they have a principle of never working with French political organizations (claiming that Muslims should not be involved in secular society). The Muslim organizations who work with some Greens and some revolutionaries against the new law are really a type of more or less radical reformist, defending the need for education and understanding between religions as a way forward for society. The local Muslim association I work with, formed some years ago before all this brouhaha, which is the biggest organization in the town of 50 000 and has four hundred members, has always had written into its constitution that « the aim of the organization is to fight against ethnic divisions and against all types of fundamentalism and racism ».
Inside the LCR the majority position (against the veil and against the law) has been defended in detail in a series of texts which have put forward in particular two arguments - firstly that the headscarf is « a preparation for shutting women away at home » and secondly « an arm of Muslim fundamentalism ».
The first argument I will look at below. The second is based on belief in a dangerous and rising fundamentalist movement in France. This is absolutely not the case. In reality organizations such as the Jehovah’s witnesses are a hundred times more active than the fundamentalist Muslims, but are always seen as harmless. What is more, most of the Muslim fundamentalist groups which do exist in France are pietist groups - that is groups who see salvation coming through a very strict application of a religious lifestyle. These groups are opposed to getting involved in politics. The school my daughter goes to has a dozen or so Mothers who wear the headscarf. The idea that they are controlled by fundamentalists is a joke. They come from six or seven different countries, and wear the headscarf for often very different reasons. Some wear it without even being religious! Why being obliged to cover other parts of the body should be okay but covering the hair should be a sign of medieval reaction is difficult to understand.
How can we explain this stunning error on the part of the Left and the extreme Left? The first explanation is that these organizations are adapting to the point of view of teachers. Sadly teachers are by a large majority in favour of the law. There are extremely few Black or North African teachers in France, and the attachment of teachers to the Great French Republic is very strong. This is why, while usually against racism, teachers are generally attached to assimilation as a « solution » for tensions between communities. In addition, recent defeats on class sizes, on pensions and so on, and working conditions which seem ever harder have led to a tendency to concentrate on getting « Muslim influence » out of schools, in a spirit of «at least we will have defended secular education ».
Secular education in France was the result of a very fierce struggle a hundred years ago against the power of the Catholic church, and the principle of secularism is extremely important to Left wing people in France. This despite the fact that the government makes many exceptions for other religions. Private Catholic and Jewish schools can pay their teachers’ salaries with public money. In Alsace and Lorraine, two regions in the East of France, an exception allows priests to teach in state schools and crucifixes to hang on the walls of the classrooms.
Many who support the new law, which bans « Conspicuous signs of religious identity » worn by pupils claim that the law is aimed equally against all religions, but this cannot be seriously defended. Crosses are defined as not conspicuous, as is the star of David. As if by magic, the only signs considered conspicuous are the Muslim veil or headscarf (and sometimes a beard worn by Muslim men). The turban worn by Sikhs has been an accidental target of the law, and seventeen Sikhs have been refused at schools (the Sikh community in France is tiny).
The temperature of the debate on the question is very high. At a demonstration in March for women’s rights, women in veils and their supporters were insulted. A small group of « feminists » stood at the side of the road shouting « Your mother should have aborted you » at us !
It is the « women’s rights » argument which is the most powerful on the Left. Recent years have seen a real regression for several aspects of women’s situation in France. Cuts in social services are made up by unpaid work by women, grants to help women who are victims of violence have been cut to the bone, practical access to abortion is problematic in many areas, and wage differences with men remain very high. In the face of this worsening situation, some have pointed the finger at Muslim men as the symbol of the dangers for women of moral reaction. Happily mixing half-thought-out feminism with racist stereotypes, they come up with an image of Muslim women as totally submissive, and the headscarf as the symbol of that submission. Feminist groups are split, with a probable majority supporting the law.
In fact the young French Muslim women who take up the headscarf today - because they are wearing it more than their mothers did - are often reacting against the racist atmosphere in a society. Their parents’ generation were often immigrants and believed in working hard and keeping their heads down, and even religious practice went down in this generation, certainly public religious practice. The younger generation are saying « we are French and we are Muslims ». They are taking up the headscarf for some of them as a challenge to a society where up to 20% vote for the fascists, and where the Left has not even been able to win the right to vote for their immigrant parents. The reaction is a sort of « Muslim is beautiful » reaction. Far from being an acceptance that a women’s rôle is in the home, these women are demanding to go to state schools and universities while being proudly Muslim. In general they are opposed to separate faith-based schools.
Whatever one might think about the wisdom of such a reaction, it has to be a basic principle that each woman should decide whether she wears the headscarf or not. Many on the Left have considered that it is okay to oblige young women to remove the headscarf, using the excuse that « they were probably forced to wear it by their parents ». All the surveys show however, that it is far more common for the parents to be opposed to the wearing of the headscarf, being keen « not to make any waves ».
Massive confusion with the situation in other countries such as Iran or Afghanistan where women are obliged against their will to cover themselves, mixed with general Islamophobia, gives the present situation.
This is the first time since the Second World War that a law has been passed specifically against a section of the population, and the massive support for this discrimination on the Left is a serious tragedy for Left wing politics. The slowly growing campaign for « One school for everybody » may help people on the Left to re-examine their prejudices about Muslims. The stakes are very high.
Web sources in French
The « One school for everybody » committees
Long dossier on the question in Socialisme International
The video/film “Un racisme à peine voilée”
http://www.laflecheproduction.org (They are looking for volunteer translators to bring out a version in English…)
This article was written for the Socialist Unity Network website in September 2004