By Elaine Ganley
July 29, 2013
Riots broke out over a full-face Islamic veil. A woman may have lost her unborn baby in another confrontation over her face covering. Tensions flared over a supermarket chain's ad for the end-of-day feast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
France's enforcement of its prized secularism is inscribed in law, most recently in a ban on wearing full-face veils in public. Meant to ensure that all faiths live in harmony, the policy instead may be fuelling a rising tide of Islamophobia and driving a wedge between some Muslims and the rest of the population.
Yet ardent defenders of secularism, the product of France's separation of church and state, say the country hasn't gone far enough. They want more teeth to further the cause that Voltaire helped inspire and Victor Hugo championed, this time with a law targeting headscarves in the work place.
A new generation of French Muslims — which at some 5 million, or about eight percent of the population, is the largest in Western Europe — is finding a growing voice in a nation not always ready to accommodate mosques, Halal food and Muslim religious dress. Political pressure from a resurgent far-right has increased the tension.
Women who wear Muslim apparel "are no longer safe," said Mohera Lukau, a 26-year-old mother of three living in Trappes, a town south of Paris known for its large immigrant population, high unemployment and women who wear long robes or hide their faces behind veils.
Police clashed last week with crowds protesting the arrest of a man who allegedly attacked an officer after his wife was ticketed for veiling her face in public. Dozens of cars were set afire in two nights of unrest in Trappes and an adjoining town. A 14-year-old boy suffered an eye injury.
Weeks earlier, a man allegedly assaulted a pregnant woman and ripped off her veil— one of two separately accosted in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil. She lost her baby days later, although the link with the incident remains unclear. Insults have been unleashed on women wearing Muslim headscarves, with investigations or court cases in three attacks in Reims and three more in Orleans.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has denounced "a rise of violence against the Muslims of France." At a dinner breaking the Ramadan fast at the Grand Mosque of Paris, he insisted that Islam and the French Republic are compatible. But he signalled the belief by some French people that Muslims want their own rules, denouncing "those who want to make France a land of conquest."
Lukau has received the message as a sign that she is not entirely welcome in her native country. She veils her head and body but not her face, and covers the heads of her daughters, two and four years old, with Hijab scarves that drape over the shoulders. People tell Lukau, who is of Algerian origin, "If you're not happy, leave, go home," she said. But, she pointed out, she was born in France.
Most French people are baptized Catholic, but church attendance has been in decline for decades and secular ideals run deep. With the growth of France's Muslim population, lawmakers have increasingly turned to legislation to try to stifle public displays of Islamic faith.
In 2004, lawmakers passed a law that bans "ostentatious" religious symbols in public schools, a measure clearly directed at Islamic headscarves. It has been enforced with barely a hitch, although no one knows how many students dropped out of school rather than submit. A two-year-old law banning burqa-style veils from the streets of France has had a bumpier ride, even though only some 2,000 Muslim women cover their faces. Islam does not require face veils or even hair coverings, and most Muslim women in France wear neither.
A report by the Observatory of Secularism, installed this year by President Francois Hollande, revealed that a handful of the 705 women stopped by police for covering their faces in public chalked up more than 10 tickets each — two of them more than 25, suggesting that some are provoking authorities intentionally.
But it is not just veils that have raised controversy. A local official in Nimes, in southern France, posted on his Facebook account an ad by the Carrefour supermarket chain publicizing "oriental" dishes for the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan — with the comment, "Our Republic, is it still secular? Everything is on the way out." After an outcry from Muslims, the post was quickly removed.
"Why, when there are Catholic feasts, is no one upset? Why, when there are Jewish feasts, is no one upset? Why, when there are Chinese feasts, is no one upset? Why, when there are Muslim feasts, is that upsetting?" asked Abdallah Zekri, the Nimes representative of the French Council for the Muslim faith. "Muslims are French citizens and live in France."
While several European countries embrace secular values, France has been at the forefront of enforcing them, with the separation of church and state enshrined in law since 1905. But France is also home to the greatest tensions over them. Some defenders of secularism say the country needs to be educated about keeping religion out of public life — and needs one more law to protect secularism in private companies.
"When the rules aren't clear, things can get out of hand," said Alain Seksig, a member of the High Council of Integration who led a government-mandated mission on secularism that encourages rules for companies concerning dress and other religious practices.
"Laicite," the French word for secularism, is a la mode today. Associations throughout France work to uphold it. Far-right groups use it as a mantra, and leftists embrace it as well. There is even a secularism prize.
Defenders often evoke Voltaire, the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher whose writings condemn religious fanaticism and espouse tolerance or Victor Hugo, who advocated education free of the grip of the then-powerful Roman Catholic Church.
But the concept is meant to protect religion from government, as well. Many Muslims say that France's obsession with secularism is trampling on their rights and more moderate advocates for secularism agree, arguing that the 1905 law is being twisted. Conceived to ensure freedom of conscience, it is doing the opposite, they contend.
Hicham Benaissa of the National Center for Scientific Research said today's secularism "appears to be a sort of (protection) against the religious influence of Islam" when "its spirit is to protect the faiths."
In the latest case to provoke calls for new regulations, a pre-school fired a woman who refused to remove her headscarf. An appeals court ruling in March calling the firing illegal spurred a demand for laws protecting secularism in private companies that would govern, for instance, dress and schedule requirements for prayer time or religious holidays.
A resulting bill to regulate religion in companies, sponsored by the opposition conservatives, failed. President Hollande says there's a need to "protect" children in private pre-schools, but his Socialist Party does not appear ready for a new law quite yet. Another report, released in June by the Observatory, tried to tone down the controversy, suggesting that slights to secularism have been exaggerated and dialogue, not a new law, may solve problems.
Guylain Chevrier, a member of the High Council on Integration who trains social workers, says the government is being too soft, trying "to put a Band-Aid on the situation."
"One educator offered a prayer rug to a child," he said. "Religion has no right to be mixed up in the private lives of citizens."
For Lukau, such laws are encouraging the separatism they are trying to prevent. She believes they are driving Muslims away from the mainstream, leading to the growth of private Muslim schools and propelling Muslims to open their own businesses.
The law and the media "with their constant finger-pointing at Muslims are the reason the French population has become aggressive," she said.
Because of her robes, Lukau sells cosmetics from her home. "I myself couldn't apply for a job in an office."