Explained: Is France really planning to ban the hijab?

Anti-extremism bill going through parliament has raised concerns from Muslims

The Eiffel Tower will reopen on July 16 after several months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Paris landmark's operator said. Reuters
The Eiffel Tower will reopen on July 16 after several months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Paris landmark's operator said. Reuters

The beheading of a schoolteacher and the killing of a female police officer in terrorist attacks have resulted in a demand for tougher action to combat extremists in France.

A so-called anti-separatism bill, which seeks to clamp down on extremism and protect French values, is making its way through parliament.

But some of its measures have led to claims the Muslim community is being unfairly targeted.

Among the proposals is a ban on the hijab for under 18s, which sparked anger and inspired a social media campaign.

The cause was taken up by prominent figures including US politician Ilhan Omar.

Why was the bill proposed?

The anti-separatism bill was triggered by the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty last year, who was murdered by a Chechen extremist for showing pupils cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed in his classroom.

It was given added impetus last month when a female police officer was stabbed to death at a police station by a Tunisian man who had watched extremist videos but was not known to the intelligence services.

But the hijab row is just the latest controversy over religious clothing in France.

France’s secular principles that separate state and religion are hugely important. Religious symbols cannot be worn by officials and people in government buildings, but can be in public spaces.

Full facial coverings such as the niqab were banned in 2010.

What was in President Emmanuel Macron’s original plan?

The draft law put forward by the government seeks, among other things, to implement stricter monitoring of the country's mosques and schools. It would also make it easier to clamp down on websites deemed to be promoting hate speech.

Under the legislation, those spreading information about people with the aim of identifying and harming them being given three years in prison and a €45,000 ($54,089) fine.

So, who suggested banning the hijab?

However, the banning of the hijab was not proposed. It was only introduced as an amendment by the Senate, France’s upper house, which is controlled by conservatives. In the Senate, 208 voted in favour while 109 were opposed.

But in France, the lower house has the final vote on legislation and is unlikely to back the move.

The Senate also proposed adding to the initial government bill by banning mothers from wearing hijabs on schools trips and prohibiting the burkini swimsuit in swimming pools.

Bruno Retailleau, president of the right-wing Republican group in the Senate, said the hijab was “sexist” and a submission of women.

“Each time we have proposed to toughen this text, especially vis-a-vis the veil and ostentatious signs, the government has backed down,” he said.

What was the reaction?

“This is what happens when you normalise anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim hate speech, bias, discrimination and hate crimes – Islamophobia written into law,” said US Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, one of the prominent voices to condemn the Senate.

The hashtag #Handsoffmyhijab – and its French equivalent #PasToucheAMOnHijab – went viral when Somali-Norwegian model Rawdah Mohamed vented her frustrations online.

“I strongly believe the only antidote of hate crime is activism. Many governments have been on the wrong side of liberation and equality before,” she wrote on her Instagram account on April 4.

“It is our duty as the people stand up and fight for each other´s rights. The hijab ban is hateful rhetoric coming from the highest level of government and will go down as an enormous failure of religious values and equality.”

Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s Europe researcher, said the provisions of the bill “would be a serious attack on rights and freedoms in France”.

“It would allow public authorities to fund only organisations which sign a ‘contract of republican commitment’ – a vaguely defined concept which is wide open to abuse and threatens the very freedoms of expression and association the French authorities claim to stand for.”

Will the proposals be passed?

It is very unlikely to become law. Previous efforts by the Senate to introduce similar measures failed.

“I would say it would be very unlikely that it becomes legislation,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist and director of the Observatoire des Radicalites Politiques.

He said that while the Senate is controlled by France’s main conservative party, the lower house is run by the party of President Emmanuel Macron. While it was Mr Macron’s government that formulated the initial bill, the amendments tabled by the Senate – including the hijab ban – made many in the party uncomfortable.

Even hardline Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin condemned the Senate’s amendments as a "suppression of religious expression”.

Dr Camus said the amendments would probably be declared illegal anyway, even if they passed though the lower house.

“The constitution grants freedom of religion. Freedom of religion includes wearing any kind of religious sign in the open space. If you are on the street, you can wear whatever you want,” he said.

Updated: May 4, 2021 05:23 PM

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