How can you have a discussion about my identity and not include me? I don’t think politicians are the ones who are supposed to define what it means to be a Muslim woman.— Rawdah Mohamed on the French Veil Ban, 2021
Secularism—A French priority
“Who is French?” and “What does it mean to be French?”. Maxim Silverman in his book Deconstructing the Nation explores the definition and nuances of French belonging. First and foremost, Silverman argues that France adopts a universalist approach to belonging with “retrospective conceptions of national homogeneity” (111). This universalist tradition is different from the differentialist values of, for instance, the USA and Britain.
Furthermore, he argues than in most political debates, there is a much deeper consensus over the French model of universalist secularism, from both the political Left and Right (Silverman 1992). In other words, universalism and secular homogeneity is a prioritized value, by both the government and the French people. Similarly, Simon Patrick (2012) argues that ever since the 18th century, to be French one must abandon all foreign values and see oneself as “French and French only”. According to him, France rejects the concept of “dual belonging”. Thus, French values push for “assimilation” rather than “integration” where uniformity and homogeneity is preferred over difference, a view that becomes problematic when different ethnic communities decide to migrate to France.
In 1989, L’affaire du foulard arose, a discussion around banning the use of Muslim veils in French public schools. The law was officially enacted in 2004 under the French principle of secularism and the reasoning that no ostentatious religious symbol should be worn in a secular nation (Dougall, 2014). As expected, this law sparked controversy. While the argument was that secularism should be protected at all costs, many saw this law as a disguised form of Islamophobia.
‘La laïcité’ is a cornerstone of La Republique, and yet one of the most polemic aspects of the nation. In 2004, the government passed a law banning religious symbols that are shown “ostensiblement” – or conspicuously – in all public schools. Notably, while the law tolerates a simple cross on a chain, headscarves worn by Muslim females are unequivocally banned.Emma Dougall, 2014.