Religious diversity and secularism in France
A European campaign on religious diversity was recently halted. Was it because it hurt French secularism or was it the target of French right-wing politics?
The Council of Europe’s diversity campaign to counter discrimination against European Muslim women was shut down after backlash in France. Both the French government and its political opponents were unanimous in their outcry against the campaign. With slogans like ‘My Headscarf, My Choice’ and ‘Celebrate Diversity & Respect Hijab’, the campaign tried to celebrate the headscarf as part of the diversity that Europe’s liberal order supports.
“The veiling of Europeans”
Sarah El Haïry, France’s state secretary for youth, strongly condemned the campaign on public television, adding that she “was profoundly shocked.” Promoting the hijab was “the opposite of the values that France defends.” Far-right presidential hopefuls, including the political commentator Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, made similar condemnations. Zemmour described it as “the veiling of Europeans” while Le Pen called it “scandalous and indecent.” The French government lodged an official protest, and the campaign was halted.
Arguably, this was not a surprising turn of events, given the campaign’s call to action was at odds with European politics. France banned full-face veiling in public places in 2010, while this year, the European Union ruled that companies could ban women from wearing the hijab. The campaign also came a few months after the French parliament passed a bill that further restricted religious activities and symbols, particularly Muslim, in public life. Moreover, France is in the midst of campaigning for 2022’s presidential elections, where appeals to rhetoric against religious minorities are likely to draw greater electoral support.
“We are going to free you on our terms”
It is crucial to note that far-right politics has seized a significant part of this campaigning. In fact, a fresh poll shows France is experiencing the ‘Zemmour phenomenon’. If he were to fight the elections, Zemmour would overtake Le Pen to make it to join Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential election. Zemmour, convicted of inciting hatred and with extreme far-right views such as the repatriation of immigrant groups and the banning of Muslim names in France, has specifically targeted European Muslim women wearing the headscarf.
In October 2021, he did exactly what the Council of Europe’s diversity campaign was trying to counter. He challenged a Muslim woman in public for wearing the headscarf: “You are not free ma’am!” He asked her to take off her headscarf so that she could prove it was her choice to wear the headscarf. She finally relented, to prove she was freely wearing it.
It can be argued that Zemmour’s public display was not about choice but about, as French legal scholar and commentator Rim-Sarah Alouane said, using Muslims and secularism to advance political agendas. Alouane herself reacted to this by saying: “A woman should be free to make her own choice and her own decision. Forcing a woman to remove her headscarf is unacceptable.”
“Asking the questions we’re all avoiding”
What is equally striking is how ‘normally’ the entire episode occurred. It happened live on television, on the French news network C*NEWS, and with little public or political outcry. Zemmour not only enjoys significant public support but also the admiration of other European intellectuals. The Somali-born Dutch American writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, recently argued that Zemmour should not be considered “far right, an extremist and a white supremacist.”
She instead argued that he is brave: “Everything I find out about him is that he’s basically asking the questions we’re all avoiding.” Responding to his calls for immigrant repatriation, Ali (herself an immigrant) said that we should logically ask why “a group of people who are from elsewhere” and refuse to adopt liberalism should not “go back home?”
‘The Secular City’
The state of French politics seems distant from the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s vision of ‘The Secular City’: “that secularity has a positive effect on institutions” and “that the city can be a space where people of all faiths fulfil their potential.” In Haïry, Le Pen, and Zemmour’s French laïcité, religiousdiversity is too messy.
But as Julia Martínez-Ariño, a sociologist of religion, argues, Frenchsecularism should not be considered as something fixed. On the contrary, its secularism is constantly in the making, seeking to negotiate religious diversity. Every day, “religious groups, city officials, municipal employees, secularist actors and other civil-society organisations negotiate concrete public expressions of religion.”
It, therefore, can be argued that these expressions of religion are part of France’s liberal order and should be allowed, even if “these challenge static conceptions of laïcité and the nation.” So, while the Council of Europe reflects “on a better presentation” of its now halted campaign, Haïry, Le Pen, and Zemmour should consider whether questioning religious diversity truly represents French laïcité.