The French secularism that has marginalised many in the Jewish community is now working overtime to do the same to French Muslims
“Is religion allowed in France?”
This is one of the first suggested search terms that appear on a Google search when putting France and religion in the same sentence. It serves as a good introduction to the confusing and often contradictory realm of French social politics and religion's place in the country.
The latest in a string of bans targeting, very specifically, Muslim women, the French senate voted to forbid veiled mothers from accompanying public school trips - a central pillar of the public school system (trips happen monthly).
Many French citizens I spoke with found the ban particularly absurd, and some recalled fond memories of Muslim mothers regularly participating in their own or their children’s lives. A former school teacher from a village near Toulouse said that in many cases, Muslim mothers seemed more engaged with school activities and their children’s education and progression.
This whole uproar started during an incident involving a National Rally politician and a veiled mother, named only as Fatima E, who accompanied her son and other children on a school trip to a regional political meeting.
During the meeting, Julien Odul leader of the political party in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region of France demanded she removes her “Islamic veil” in the name of the nation’s secularist principles.
Reports and the video show that “the woman was attending the meeting with a group of local schoolchildren – including her son who, in response to Odoul’s words, started to cry.”
She said, “They have destroyed all the work I was doing indirectly with this class, where children of immigrant roots often had an attitude of thinking France was against them.”
While some in the room came to her defence, others began to chant “secularism.”
Two weeks after this event, the nation’s senate passed a bill banning veiled mothers from attending school trips. This will be moved to the national assembly and needs to be approved before being implemented.
Laicite literally translated means secularism and is a political pillar in France and can be traced to around 1905 when the state and church formally separated. But politicians and lawmakers today seem to have forgotten the first article of this law which ensures free public expression of religion. It also states a formal de-funding of all religious institutions.
The second article states that the budget from de-funded religious will be reallocated to state services, once again to ensure the free expression of one’s religion.
Ultimately, it is not an aversion to religion but the public funding of it. Most importantly, this was done to end the control Christian religious institutions had on government.
Despite the nation’s formal separation from the Church, France somehow became home to the largest Jewish population outside the United States and Israel, as well as home to the largest Muslim minority population in Western Europe.
Historically, France was a (and still is) a vastly Christian-majority country inclusive of the different sects of these religions.
In effect, however, laicite has been distorted to ostracise religion.
The Jewish community in France has long faced discrimination. So much so, that many have left the public school system and moved to Jewish-only schools that often contain unregulated curriculum.
This phenomenon is now repeating itself with Islamic schools as well. The Jewish community has felt excluded from public life, and along with an increase in dangerous anti-semitic attacks, the community has been pushed into a corner.
One report from the JTA cites, “Whereas 30 years ago the majority of French Jews enrolled their children in public schools, now only a third of them do so. The remaining two-thirds are divided equally between Jewish schools and private schools that are not Jewish, including Catholic and Protestant institutions, according to Francis Kalifat, the newly elected president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities. The change has been especially dramatic in the Paris area, which is home to some 350,000 Jews, or an estimated 65 percent of French Jewry.”
It must be noted, however, that while there is general discrimination against all religion, there are some contradictions. Take, for example, the staunch government position against the burkini in public swimming facilities. Politicians utilised the rhetoric of a religious take-over and mockingly anticipating requests for women-only hours at these public facilities – calling it sexual apartheid. The reality is that there are already municipal pools that facilitate this for the religious Jewish community, begging the question, why the outcry then?
Rather than nitpick over the small scraps offered by the government, minorities should be united in their effort to propel secularism which upholds freedom of religious expression.
Ultimately, the core of secularism holds to principals of non-discrimination, not exclusion. These policies are shifting not only demographics on a national scale, but influencing a sub-school system that operates unregulated by the government. This stands to isolate segments of the population from the general public.
Often religious discrimination, particularly in France, seems to fall, quite literally, onto the heads of women. Having pushed Jewish children, and their parents, away from participating in public life, it seems now there is a rejuvenated campaign to drive Muslim families out as well.
Nadine Sayegh is a writer and researcher on the Arab world covering gender, violent extremism and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.