Decathlon’s renouncement of the runners’ hijab: the latest French veil controversy

On 27thof February, Decathlon, the leading French sport company has announced via its spokesperson, the withdrawal from sales of its latest product, a hijabfor runners. This product has created a massive controversy in France, with both vehement debates online and political reactions, which illustrate, once again, for the international press, the complicated relationship between France and Islam due to its principle of laïcité (secularism).


From commercialization to withdrawal: a chronology


The affair started on social media, when some clients discovered on Decathlonwebsite a hijabfor women runners on sale. Already available in Morocco, the product’s commercialization on French market was planned mid-March. Following some viral tweets, the hijabfor runners rapidly became the major topic in French media due to political leaders’ reactions and divided French public opinion. Confronted by critical and hostile reactions Decathlon’s attitude has been hesitant: the company first explained that the announcement was a “mistake” (the product would not be proposed for the French market), before stating its wish to commercialize it. Online, the community manager of the firm reminded critics that the slogan of the company has always been to “make sport practice more accessible everywhere in the world” and asserted that the creation of such merchandise was a response to a sport need from women. However the controversy surrounding the hijabstill increased and became a political issue as debate raged among the French political class, some of whom accused Decathlonof promoting a negative image of women, of adopting non-secularist principles or indeed of encouraging the “Islamisation of France”. Online petition and call for the boycott of the company have also been initiated, contributing to create a hostile climate: Decathlonreceived a number of insulting letters while some of its staff has been directly physically threatened. Consequently, the brand preferred to reconsider its plan and suspended the process of commercialization while urging calm.


Debates online between netizens illustrated a wide diversity of ideological positions towards French secularism. The two contradictory positions might be presented as follow: first, for the opponents, sport is described as a medium of social integration and citizenship and allowing the wearing of the veil would be contrary to this ideal. In the other hand, Decathlonused a similar argument to explain that its duty is to allow Muslim veiled women to practise their sport (and consequently to emancipate themselves and be integrated in French society) by creating such product. The fact that such a topic became central in French public debate, especially if one look at the over reaction of politicians, has raised some interesting issues: critics from across the political spectrum appeared internally divided with no consensual communication. Religious questions, particularly regarding Islam, do not seem to be relevant to structure the French political scene anymore, towards the classic division between right and left.


One must also notice that Decathlonhas been criticized by some “ordinary Muslims”, who denounced the running hijabas a capitalistic and consumerist initiative of the group, an initiative already undertaken by many sport brands in France such as Nike since 2017. However, French Muslims mainly claimed their wish to practise their religion without being at the centre of public discussions. As an example a feminist women’s collective signed an article in the French newspaper Libérationto vindicate their rights as French – Muslim – Citizens and to report daily discriminations against them.


International reactions towards French secularism: a recurrent issue


This issue prompted number of reactions from international press, which mainly mocked French overreaction and recurrent opposition towards veil, which has been perceived as symptomatic of French hostility towards Islam. France has been derided for its lack of tolerance and its restrictive vision of secularism. The German newspaper Die Weltfocused and underlined the juridical aspect of the case, explaining that if integral veil or burqa(which cover the face) is forbidden in France, the hijabis legally authorized, as it does not cover the face.


The Washington Post, in a very satirical editorial raised the question of the visibility of Islam in public areas, which is presented as a recurring debate for French society. The law of 2004 banned veil from schools, the full-face veil has been prohibited in 2010 and then burkini (a modesty swimsuit) controversy occurred in 2016. Furthermore, the newspaper argued that if French state and its public institutions have a duty of religious neutrality, as required by the law on secularism, Decathlonis a private company, and as such is not required to follow similar obligations.


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