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France, the hijab and the left

jeudi 9 septembre 2004

Ce texte a été présenté à la Summer Schoold de l’AWL en juillet 2004.

France : the hijab and the Left

Dear comrades,

I would like first to thank the AWL for having invited me to this week-end of debate. I have been asked to present the recent discussion about the hijab and the law prohibiting what is called « conspicuous religious signs » in State schools.

On website a certain Dr Abdallah explains very cynically that, for a child, the period between 10 and 15 years old is crucial. This fundamentalist thinks that Muslim children should go to the French State schools before ten as there is no « danger » - as he writes - until that age ; Muslim children should study at home between 10 and 15 (if one of the parents has the necessary time and education), and go to a private school (that is concretely and presently a Catholic school) afterwards. I have not found a clearer explanation of what is at stake in the discussion about the hijab in France.

Why is the debate about the hijab taking so much place in France ? When I started looking for documents to make this speech I realized I was facing a collection of conspiracy theories :
- the Islamist conspiracy.,
- the Catholic Church conspiracy.
- The joint leftist-islamist conspiracy,.
- The multiculturalists’ conspiracy.
- The capitalist conspiracy, etc I have probably forgotten some of the conspiracy theories about the headscarf debate. Obviously I have caricatured several hypotheses which all touch a different element of French or international reality. In 20 minutes I wont be able to explain all these theories and tell you how much of them is truth and how much is fantasy. I’ll just try to explain how the hijab debate affected the political scene and specially the Left.

In the 1960s, when I was a left wing Catholic, all my high school friends were Jews. But neither me nor my Jewish friends defined ourselves according to our religion. We were basically leftwing adolescents. Our politics determined our friendships and our so-called « identities ». We would have never imagined that in the 1980s SOS Racisme, the antiracist organization sponsored by the Socialist Party, would give a left-wing political legitimity to purely ethnic concepts like « les Blacks, les Blancs et les Beurs » (Blacks, Whites and North Africans). These terms were totally alien to the left. Between 1965 and 1981, I used to sell revolutionary newspapers in working class suburbs. I cant remember having seen a significant number of headscarves in the tower blocks or on the popular markets. I worked at Paris airports between 1979 and 1983 for the 3 North African airlines. The only « veiled » women I remember were the ones coming from the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. But the tens of thousands of North African women who were going back every year to their native land, or who came to visit their family in France, rarely wore any hijab, not to mention a burka. This was basically the situation until the beginning of the 1980’s. North African and African women migrated to France during whole of the 20th century but they did not import their « conspicuous religious signs » - when they had religious beliefs. Obviously one can question why and denounce French racism or intolerance towards Muslim religion and North Africans. But this kind of criticism often implies (consciously or unconsciously) that all North Africans were or are devoted Muslims - which is not true. We must recognize that the French conception of secularism exerted a strong but invisible pressure on Muslim women and men. The French « model of integration » is in fact a model of assimilation through the School and other institutions, a model which leaves religion and ethnic origins in the private sphere.

Nevertheless, since 1989, the hijab has become an important element in political debate. The discussion has started inside and about the school system. The media have dramatized it s. The politicians have also stirred up this debate with maybe the idea of diverting the population’s attention towards a phenomenon which presently has a very limited size. But obviously the problem of the hijab is slowly but surely starting to become omnipresent :
- in some hospitals where Muslim husbands now demand to have a female surgeon or gynecologist for their wife ;
- in private companies or public administrations who want to fire female employees or executives who decide to wear the hijab ;
- in banks where some security guards have refused the entrance to « veiled » clients, etc. ;
- in schools where sometimes veiled mothers cant penetrate inside the building unless they take off their hijab ;
- and, simply, in the streets, where anyone can witness the progression of the number of « veiled » women.

In France, traditionally North Africans did not have any centralized organization which could represent their so-called « community » and deal with the French state. The official migrants associations linked to the Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian governments never seriously organized workers. Their only aim was (and still is today) to spot all the political opponents in order to spy on them and/or to arrest them, when they come back home. These official immigrant organisations are also interested in identifying those who participate in strikes or other struggles in France and who discover the basics of working class politics.

There was and there is still a mosque in Paris and his rector was from time to time considered as a sort of spokesman of the Muslims but this mosque never built any strong, powerful religious organization around it. To say the truth in 1975 there were only half a dozen mosques in France as opposed to 1 700 prayer centers and mosques today.

The lack of Muslim representation was partly linked to the peculiarities of Islam itself but it was also the consequence of a pressure from the French State. The State obliged Muslims living in France to adopt a low profile, to have, in many cases, an almost clandestine religious practice. Obviously that was not an official policy. But that’s why there are so few mosques in France : not because their construction is officially illegal, but because most mayors always find a socalled technical reason to refuse a building licence. Most Muslims are obliged to pray in basements, former garages or factories and all sorts of inadequate places - a very humiliating situation for them.

In the 1990s, the governmental parties decided that things should change. Two socialist leaders (P. Joxe and J.P. Chevènement) and a conservative politician (N. Sarkozy), all successively Interior ministers, played a decisive role. The Interior minister in France is at the head of police forces and public administration. But, since Napoleon, he is also in charge of the relationships between the State and the various religious groups.

A Council representing French Muslims has been formed under the pressure of the Left and Right-wing governements. After three years of heated discussions between the different rival Muslim tendencies, elections have been organized on a very controversial basis. It was decided to use the number of square meters in the mosques or in the prayer halls controlled by each Muslim current to determine the number of voters. Such a decision obviously favoured the currents who were financially and politically linked to the Muslim States, mainly Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It’s the organization which is closest to the Muslim Brothers (the UOIF) which won these first elections.

So governmental parties have chosen to artificially create a religious representation for the socalled « muslim » community. In other terms, the Right and the Left assume that most North-Africans are Muslim, and should be treated as Muslims and not as citizens. Why have the Left and the Right changed their mind after having denied for years the existence of any problem ?

The immigrants and their descendants live in working class suburbs which have been more and more abandoned by the State, by private companies, etc. Faced with the total disagregation of these areas, with the growth of local mafias and gangs, the main governmental parties have decided to award to the local muslim religious leaders the right to ideologically control part of the working class suburbs. In these districts, the CP and its satellite organisations have almost disappeared ; the Far Left (apart from Lutte ouvrière and some maoists) has never done any systematic political work ; and to top it all, the percentage of unemployment, bad housing, rape and domestic violence, drug traficking, etc., is quite high.

To confront this situation, the Left and Right parties are trying to promote the most moderate Muslim religious forces, the ones which are able to respect the demands of the State and approve its law-and-order policy. I just told you that the French State was apparently abandonning part of its functions of social control to imams, local religious leaders or even some muslim sects, in order to organize each so-called community along religious lines. But obviously the process is much more complex and contradictory because the Republican-Secular ideology still remains officially at the core of French politics, at least in theory.

To illustrate the present contradictory attitudes of French right and left governments one can look, for example, at the recent school textbooks and programs of the IUFM, the universities where the future teachers are trained. On one side, there is a new tendency to rehabilitate the study of religions at school. The IUFM invites imams, ministers, priests and rabbis to explain religion to the future teachers. And on the other side, islam is portrayed in most texts as the most backward religion, the only religion unable to reform itself and to become a modern, respectable religion like the other ones are supposed to be. Such a political turn in governement policy has obviously provoked many reactions among the reformist Left and revolutionary groups.

The reactions of the Left and Far Left

The CP was divided into at least 2 or 3 fractions. The last CP mayors have a different approach to law and order problems that other factions of the CP bureaucracy which depend less on electoral results and are betting on the antiglobalization movement and its soft position about multiculturalism. The Socialist Party is the main party of the French Left in terms of votes but certainly not in terms of working class militants. The Socialist Party defends what it calls an « open secularism » which is a step in the direction of some form of multiculturalism. In other words secularism is transformed into the modern and trendy notion of « tolerance », instead of being a clear defence of the freedom of thought for all individuals, whether they believe in God or not. The socialists have supported the new law banning the hijab without much internal discussion. Their attitude is quite understandable as they decided, in the 1990s, to denounce what the National Front and all the bourgeois politicians call the « insecurity » in working class suburbs. In most French people’s minds (and unfortunately in most foreigners’ minds), « insecurity » rhymes with immigration, Arabs and Muslims. It is the same socialist minister (Chevènement) who strongly supported the cops when he was in office. It’s the same man who violently denounced the juvenile delinquents and working class youth, calling them « sauvageons », wild mavericks. And it’s the same politician who obliged Muslim religious groups to unite and organize in one single Muslim Council.

The most pro-Republican feminists, like Ni putes ni soumises (Neither whores nor servants) also supported the new law. Ni putes ni soumises is a small but highly mediatized movement created in some working class suburbs to denounce sexual harassment, collective rapes as well as the pressures of the imams and Muslim men on girls and women. It has unfortunately strong ties with the Socialist Party. Although the young women and men involved in this group are certainly sincere, they are clearly helping the Socialist Party to gain some popularity. The Socialist party is trying to repeat today with the revolt of these young women the same political operation performed in the 1980s. At that time a radical movement called La Marche des Beurs (The March of the Arabs) arose among young immigrants or French people living in working class suburbs. Thanks to the Socialist Party, this radical movement was killed by the creation of SOS Racisme in the 1980’s.

Among the main groups of the Far Left, two trotskyst groups supported the new law : Lutte Ouvrière and the Parti des Travailleurs.

Although Lutte ouvrière (Workers Struggle) has built organizations in the West Indian and African immigration, it never succeeded (or never tried I don’t know) to build groups among North African migrants. Its strong opposition to the law must linked to its attempt at courting the Republican feminists of Ni putes ni soumises. LO is probably trying to seduce a part of the Republican petite-bourgeoisie and at the same time does not want to confront the workers who are in favor of the law just because they dont like Muslims.

The other so-called « revolutionary » group which supported the new law is the Parti des travailleurs (Workers Party). The PT is a former close associate of the British SLL-WRP. The PT is very hostile to religion ; it controls one association of « libres penseurs » (Free thinkers) and has traditional close ties with the Free Masons, an old custom - or better an old disease - in the French workers movement as Trotsky bitterly remarked already 80 years ago. And the PT is on a very chauvinist line.

The Far Left opponents to the new law

- Among the opponents to the law, who adopted a position close to the AWL, one can mention the majority of the LCR : « No to the law, no to the veil », they said, quite a sensible position for revolutionaries.

But the strongest opposition to the law came basically from what I would call the multiculturalist Left, although probably no militant would agree with this definition. The multiculturalist Left can be schematically divided into 3 groups :

1) currents inside the LCR itself (currents which have been strenghtened by the recent adhesion to the LCR of 100 militants of the French section of the British SWP. This group is sadly famous for its slogan « We are all Muslims » !)

2) currents inside Feminist circles who tried to understand the complex individual reasons which pushed young girls to decide to wear the hijab. These feminists think that the main ennemy should be racism and not Muslim religion and its clothing practices. Among these circles the myth of a possible « Muslim feminism » has also gained some influence.

3) And the 3rd major opponent to the law is the majority of ATTAC, the antiglobalization movement which includes a good proportion of leftwing Christians, a fact which may explain why ATTAC is so soft with secularism.

The fight of these opponents coincided with the struggle led by Tarik Ramadan, a Swiss philosophy teacher. Ramadan is trying to build a political career in France. His books and conferences influence the young people who are attracted by Islam. They see islam as a way to affirm their dignity and to protest againt racism and social exclusion. Tarik Ramadan presents to these young men and women a politico-religious project, a fusion between islam and French Republican-Secular values, the possibility of being, at last, a proud French nationalist citizen and at the same time a proud Muslim.

The new law about « conspicuous religious signs » has been voted by almost all French deputies. To be precise, 494 MPS voted for it, and 36 against. Among those opposed to the law, half belonged to the Left and half to the Right. Until now, every year, only a few hundred girls out of 12 million students are trying to wear the hijab and are expelled from the schools.

This law will not solve anything. It may even worsen the situation and encourage other teenagers or other parents to wear the famous forbidden headscarf. Expelling young girls and sending them home is not a solution either. What has to be done is to discuss with the students, to discuss and discuss until they and the teachers reach a compromise.

For the moment there is not even one Muslim elementary school or high school in France. So the present main danger is not the multiplication of Muslim Schools, the danger is that the girls will stay at home and study by correspondence - which is what is happening today.

Expelling girls solution only reinforces their isolation and their possible indoctrination by Muslim sects or political groups Teachers should not teach the pupils their conceptions in favour of atheism or against religion. They should try to help young girls and boys to think by themselves, to acquire a critical mind, to slowly discover that all religions evolve. So maybe the pupils will slowly realize that religions dont come from Heaven and are a product of human history. But what applies to teachers should not apply to revolutionary groups.

Today, in France few revolutionaries have an aggressive attitude towards religion and religious alienation. Few people critize seriously the weight of the Catholic Church in French society. More and more intellectuals, journalists and politicians affirm that religions (and by religions they often mean all religions except islam at least since the 15th century) have had a civilising role and should be praised for that.

The French government wants to stress the importance of the various religions, because of their supposedly positive values which could influence the attitudes of children today, children whose parents are accused of having lost any morality, of ignoring basic Republican or family values. This is why any criticism against Islam should be always accompanied by criticisms against the other religions (especially the Catholic one in France) and against the so-called civic morality proposed by bourgeois State.

Yves Coleman

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