Opinion

The Muslim Headscarf Is Driving France Crazy. Once Again

Warning all Frenchmen: Headscarves ahead! Bid to extend ban on wearing religious symbols is further poisoning France’s toxic social and political atmosphere

FILE - In this May 16, 2014 file photo, women wear muslim scarf and hold French flags gather outside the town hall of Mantes la Ville, northwest of Paris. The French Senate approved a bill Tuesday proposed by the mainstream right that would oblige women wearing headscarves to remove them when accompanying school outings. The bill has almost no chance of becoming law since the lower chamber, controlled by President Emmanuel Macron's centrist party, will almost certainly axe it.
Michel Euler/AP

From the moment my taxi driver picked me up at the airport, he found it hard to conceal his anger. “How in the hell has it broken out again?” he muttered. The whole way from the Bordeaux airport to the center of the city, Jibril, a tall, strong man, described the events in France in recent weeks relating to the country’s attitude toward immigrants.

Jibril’s parents immigrated to France from Senegal. He and one of his siblings were born in Bordeaux. Jibril has three children who attend elementary school in the city, which is considered the world’s wine capital. Until recently, the family’s dark skin hadn’t kept him and his wife from feeling French. He says their children also felt no animosity or rejection over their skin color, he said.

In recent months, however, Jibril says he feels that his country is turning its back on him. Although things had calmed down, the public discourse against immigrants has resumed. The debate over the future of France and of its Muslim inhabitants has engendered a mix of hate and fear.

He says he has had passengers who let go of their inhibitions and say exactly what’s on their mind. One told him that he would be happy to wake up one morning and find that the country’s immigrants, particularly Muslims, had disappeared. It was a fantasy shared by many of his friends, the passenger acknowledged.

People are leaving a mosque in the 11th arrondissement in Paris.
Avshalom Halutz

Jibril expressed concern that French President Emmanuel Macron would be succeeded by a head of state who would pursue a policy involving deportations of one kind or another. “In today’s atmosphere, anything is possible,” he said.

Once a year Jibril travels to Senegal to see relatives. “They relate to me as being French, while here they relate to me as African,” he quipped.

I don’t feel at home in my country

“So I ask you, what am I, French or Senegalese? What are my children? I know that the French hatred toward us has always existed, but recently I haven’t been feeling good. I was born in Bordeaux but I don’t feel at home in my country. And I don’t feel at home in Senegal either.”

As we spoke, there was a heated exchange on the radio between an academic and a local politician. The academic was a woman who had been born in France to Algerian parents. The politician was a “true” Frenchman, as he described himself. “In my family, there are no immigrants. Everyone is French,” he said to her.

The host of the program made reference to the killing of four police employees at police headquarters in Paris in October. Before he knew the motive for the killings, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner called on the French people to be on the lookout for unusual behavior, particularly “men with beards or who pray in the street and arouse suspicions.” Muslim organizations called the remarks blatant incitement against the country’s Muslims and went on alert.

Jibril turned up the volume and acknowledged that he had become addicted to discussions on the radio about “the Islamic threat.” It’s on from morning to night, he said. “Islam, Islam, Islam.” He’s a Muslim who advocates complete separation between religion and state.

People are celebrating new year's eve on the champs Elysees avenue, Paris, 2019.
Avshalom Halutz

On the radio, the politician and the academic were trying to have a calm conversation about a proposed amendment to the 2004 law banning the wearing of religious symbols in public institutions to adult chaperones on school trips. The academic claimed that it would violate a basic right. The politician argued that allowing Muslim women to wear headscarves while accompanying schoolchildren on trips was a ploy to bring in Islam “through the back door.”

The number of Muslim female chaperones wearing headgear has risen, but the bill prohibits all religious symbols worn by chaperones, including kippot for Jewish men and large crosses for Christians.

Psychological warfare

The Muslim headscarf is driving France absolutely crazy. It embodies the most primeval fears and for many people it is perceived as a declaration of war by Muslims against their new country. If they integrated into France and felt fully French, they wouldn’t need to cover their heads with a black rag, the argument goes. And more and more people in France are convinced that the Muslim headscarf is psychological warfare against secularism and the principles for which millions of Frenchmen have died.

The radio debate became more heated. Perhaps in an effort to rile up the politician, the academic told him that because of the negative stance that he and his colleagues were taking, she was considering joining a group of women taking children to school.

The host interjected: “Madame, if you would permit me to ask, would that be with our without a headscarf?”

“With a headscarf, of course,” she said decisively.

The headscarf frenzy isn’t abating. Several weeks ago, it caused an uproar at a session of the Dijon region’s legislature and reverberated around the country. It happened on a Friday in October, when a group of students entered the chamber to witness democracy in action.

They were accompanied by a woman who took her seat next to them. Suddenly Julien Odoul, a right-wing regional council member from the National Rally, the former National Front, addressed the presiding officer: “Madame Speaker, I would ask that you approach the woman accompanying the group and demand that she remove the Islamic headscarf on her head. We are in a public building, in a democratic assembly. She can keep wearing her scarf at home or on the street, but not here. In the name of our secular values and the women suffering under Islamic tyranny, I would ask that the woman be told to remove the scarf on her head, because that’s [our] republic and secularism.”

Mannequins with veils are seen on display at an exhibition hall for the Muslim World Fair in Le Bourget, outside Paris.
Christophe Ena/AP

This set off a commotion among the council members, including shouting in support and against the request. The students were shocked by the turn of events. The council speaker denied the request, saying that it would only exacerbate hatred in the country. Right-wing council members walked out of the chamber in protest.

Overnight, Odoul became a hot political property and a mainstay of television coverage. On the far right, his political future was thought to be a sure thing. Course behavior and harsh rhetoric had become a political weapon in France too.

The French Senate approved the bill October 29 but it has little chance of becoming law since the lower chamber, controlled by Macron’s centrist party, will almost certainly axe it.

Leila, Fatima and Samira

This month marks 30 years since a dramatic event that transformed political discourse in France. It began with three girls on their way to school. The three, Leila, Fatima and Samira, were wearing Muslim head coverings. It’s hard to believe that they would have thought that cloth on their heads could ignite controversy that has not waned to this day, but that’s the case.

Their case was the official start of the clash between Muslim immigrants to France and the secular French republic. In the view of many French, there is no value more sacred than secularism. And many also live with the sense that nothing can stop Islam before it completely takes over France.

The 2004 law restricting the display of overt religious symbols in the public sphere did not achieve its goal. It was aimed at indirectly curbing the growing religious fervor of Muslims, but it didn’t calm matters. And now it is the turn of Muslim mothers and others accompanying children to school to embody fear of Islam in France.

This poisoned atmosphere could also seep into the elections that are due to be held in France in another year and a half. The conditions for it are ideal: fear over the future, economic insecurity, chronic unemployment, rampant capitalism and millions of immigrants who are returning to religion. All of this is deepening the fear and changing the face of France.

Fear of religion has exceeded all limits, and fear of immigrants, fanned by the far right, has become widespread. All that’s needed is a single irresponsible and uninhibited politician. The founder of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, may have faded almost entirely from the national scene, but he has left behind two heirs and a racist, xenophobic legacy.

His daughter Marine Le Pen and her young niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen will undoubtedly do what they can to see to it that France continues to wallow in this mire. How unfortunate.

Jibril, my cab driver, got out of his car to say goodbye to me. He had the feeling that I was on his side, and he wasn’t mistaken. If he really felt that ill winds were blowing in France, he would pack up his family and move to Senegal, he said.

“I would become African again,” he sighed. “Actually, I’ve never stopped being African.”