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Wednesday , September 30 2020

Muslim headscarf debate divides France

Issue sparks discord even within Macron’s government

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. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

PARIS, Oct 30, (AP): When a French official disrupted a regional council meeting to demand that a Muslim woman accompanying a group of schoolchildren be ordered to remove her headscarf, “in the name of our secular principles,” her own child buried his head in her shoulder and cried.

The scene – too toxic even for official Julian Odoul’s far-right National Rally party – triggered a venomous national debate that is scrambling questions over the headscarf, Islam, immigration and radicalization. The clamor reached a crescendo with the shooting and wounding Monday of two Muslims outside a mosque in southwest France by a suspect with past links to the anti-immigration National Rally. The 84-year-old alleged gunman told investigators he attacked “to avenge the destruction of Notre Dame,” Paris’ grand cathedral ravaged by fire in April – which he blamed, inexplicably, on Muslims.

In other times, the Oct 11 confrontation at the council meeting in Dijon might have been but one more installment in France’s decades-long battle with itself over how to define, and enforce, secularism, a principle inscribed in the constitution more than a century ago to ensure neutrality regarding religions. But today’s uproar illustrates the growing unease – even contempt – by some sectors of society toward those Muslims seen as failing to join the French melting pot. Some contend it shows the normalization of Islamophobia in France.

“The veil (headscarf) is seen as the symbol par excellence of religious visibility” and is “seen by some … as linked to radicalization,” said Nicolas Cadene, No. 2 in the government’s Observatory of Secularism. “We’re in a climate of a meeting of fears, emotions, instincts,” he said in an interview.

For Cadene, French society is growing polarized as one part increasingly turns away from religion while another, notably Muslims, grows more visible. The attack inside Paris police headquarters early this month by a Muslim intelligence employee that left four dead raised already percolating tensions, he said.

Debate
In all cases, he said, the debate shows the confusion over the 1905 law separating church and state, the basis of the country’s unusually important secular identity. He said the law is not meant to protect a “mythical identity, white and of Catholic culture” promoted by some. Islam is the No. 2 religion in a largely Catholic nation where many, especially the anti-immigration far-right, hone to France’s roots and view its Muslim population, which grew from the nation’s colonial past, as intruders and a threat to the French way of life, including secularism.

Fifteen years ago, France forbid students from wearing “ostentatious” religious signs in classrooms. Seven years later, it became illegal to wear facecovering veils in French streets. While all showy religious signs are included in the 2004 law and all garments covering the face are banned in the 2011 measure, it has never been a secret that Muslims were the target. The mother who was the focus of Julian Odoul’s anger has said she decided to accompany a class because her son implored her to go.

“What he told me when he was crying is that he felt everyone was against me,” the woman, identified only as Fatima E., told the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, which published the interview. “I felt a rejection I’ve never felt before,” she said.

“Today, I have a negative opinion of what is called the Republic.” A caustic political climate five months before municipal elections is feeding today’s debate. A tattered mainstream right is trying to rebuild itself by playing the anti-immigration card, while a newly strengthened far right tries to lure them to its ranks. 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. But the issue sparks discord even within Macron’s government. For Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, “it is not desirable” for a mother to wear a headscarf on a field trip. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe says that it’s fine – as long as the mother doesn’t proselytize. Macron has shown cautious opposition to the idea.

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