“Not here, not today”. This is what a local elected politician from the Rassemblement National(a far-right party) told to a veiled mother, who accompanied her son’s class for a school visit in the regional parliament in Burgundy (eastern France) the 11thof October. The politician urged the mother to remove her headscarf or to leave the hemicycle, provoking the distress and the tears of her nine years old son. The pupil then joined his mother’s arms creating an iconic image. The official additionally stated to the assembly that the presence of an Islamic headscarf in a republican building, only few days after the terror attack of Paris’ Prefecture de Police, was not acceptable, establishing an explicit link between Islam and terrorism. The speaker of the parliament has reprimanded his attitude, and recalled that nothing in the law prohibited the wear of a hijabin such building. Finally the far-right politician left the room by himself.
The video of this verbal aggression has been viewed more than three million times, and consequently reopened, once again, the never-ending French debate on headscarf. The ambiguous reactions from the political class contributed to create and maintain an amalgam between ordinary Muslim practices and potential indicators of radicalisation.
A divided French political class toward the question of the veil
As previously enlightened, the issue of the veil does not seem to be relevant to structure the French political scene anymore, towards the classic division between right and left, and does not allow any consensus within the majority of President Macron. In response to this event, the prime Minister affirmed during an allocution to the parliament that the mother was in her own right, as she did not break any law in accordance to the French concept of secularism, calledlaïcité. He similarly expressed his reluctance to legislate on this question, considering that the law already was efficient enough. Few members of the presidential majority defended a similar position, while the Minister of Education, Jean Michel Blanquer, has adopted a more equivocal position. He stated that veil “was not desirable in our [the French] society”.
Despite a condemnation of the far-right politician’s attitude towards the mother, in the right opposition this event has been used as an opportunity to publicise a forthcoming project of legislation. The ambition of Les Républicains(the right party) is to legislate on mothers’ dress code in school trips and a law proposal will be exanimated the 29thof October. The law project aims to extend the religious neutrality required in the name of secularism towards school trip attendants. To state it more obviously, the obligation of religious neutrality would be broadened to everyone participating to the national public system, and not only to State salaries. Considering the division within the political class, the result of such issue appears particularly uncertain.
The veil: a “weak-signal” of radicalization?
More broadly, the mother aggression might be anchored in a general context of increasing suspicion towards French Muslims. In response to the terror attack in the Prefecture de police in early October – Michaël Harpon, an administrative agent of the Paris Prefecture de Police, killed four of his colleagues before being shot -, President Macron called the 8thof October to “form a block” as a “society of vigilance” and to fight an “Islamist hydra” (a mythological animal with three heads). The profile of the terrorist – a member of the police unity in charge of the struggle against terrorism, converted few years ago to Islam, apparently reported many times for radicalization by some of his colleagues – raised the question of the signalisation of radicalization within public services.
In order to address the problem, the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner suggested the same day as President Macron, several criteria to evaluate the degrees of radicalization, with both “strong” and “weak” signals. His wish is to systematically report individuals presenting “indices” of radicalization, such as wearing a beard, having an ostensible and regular practice of the prayer, observing a more intense religious practice during the month of Ramadan or refusing to shake hands with women.
Monday the 14thof October, the University of Cergy (in the North-West of Paris) has used a similar terminology, relaying a list of “radicalization signals”, via an email sent to all faculty’s members. The email was entitled “call for vigilance”, in direction of both students and colleagues. In addition to the criteria elaborated by the Minister of the Interior, some new “weak signals” of radicalization have been added, such as the fact of stopping alcohol, or presenting a sudden interest for national and international news. In the face of reactions from students, faculty’s members and public opinion, the direction of the University finally withdrew, evoking a “clumsiness mistake”.
Marginalization of French Muslims in public debate
Nevertheless, these events and the political declarations appeared as particularly emblematic of a gradual changeover in the perception of radicalization, with a new recurring construction of enemy from within and the installation of an anxiety atmosphere. Such amalgam between Islam and terrorism has been strongly condemned online with the hashtag #SignalaMuslim [#Signaleunmusulman] turning President Macron’s wish for a society of vigilance into a society of denunciation. An open letter has been published by 90 famous French personalities in Le Monde, in which they urged the President to publicly “say stop to hate against French Muslims”. They blamed the creation of an internal threat with the stigmatization of Muslim women in particular and French Muslims in general. Furthermore, and this is probably a revealing factor, the newspaper Libérationhas recorded 85 debates on news TV channels, with 286 people invited on these occasions, but 0 veiled woman.
Despite what these statistics might suggest, French Muslims did not remain silent. The verbally assault mother decided to file a complaint against the local politician and has received the support of the Comity Against Islamophobia in France(CCIF). In the same time, the French Council of Muslim Faith(CFCM) – the organ in charge of the Muslim worship in France and a major interlocutor of French government -, expressively denounced “hysterical reactions” surrounding this case, and the instauration of an “anxiety climate” coupled with a “far-right rhetoric”.
Finally, the lack of media attention to Muslims seems symptomatic of the French context: most of the time, French Muslims do not have the capacity to express their opinion on matters, which concern them.