France’s recent history has been rocky when it comes to religion. In 2004, President Jacques Chirac introduced a law forbidding the wearing of any ‘conspicuous’ symbols of religion in schools. This included the Jewish kippa and Muslim hijab, though the wearing of ‘discreet’ symbols, such as cross jewellery, was permitted. In 2007, this was extended to wearing any head covering in the spirit of a religious one. To put that into context, an atheist child would be allowed to wear a bandana to school, but a Muslim girl would not, on the grounds that she was only using it to get around the prohibition on the hijab. In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a law which prohibited the wearing of the niqab, a face covering worn by Muslim women. The punishment for doing so was to pay a €150 fine or to attend an educational course on ‘citizenship education’. And now, in 2021, the law is about to extend even further.

It is worth delving into the phrasing of the new ‘anti-separatism’ bill, which has been approved by the French Senate, and is awaiting ratification by the National Assembly. Not once are Muslims or Islam mentioned by name in the bill. Instead, it proposes to ban under-18s from publicly wearing any religious symbols which ‘would signify inferiority of women over men’. Of course, the main effect of this legislation will be on the use of the hijab, because – unlike, for example, Christian wimples, worn mainly by adult nuns – the hijab is commonly worn from puberty, falling into the under-18 bracket. In many ways, the phrasing is rather more insidious than the outright ‘hijab ban’ which has caught the attention of social media. The bill will effectively give the French government the ability to define which religious paraphernalia oppress women. To have a governmental body grant themselves the right to ascribe meaning to a religious practice is troubling, and utterly undermines their claims of secularism.

Equally troubling is the silence of the British mainstream media on the issue. The bill has been widely condemned through social media, with over two thousand Instagram posts using the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab to campaign against the proposal, garnering hundreds of thousands of likes. Despite this extensive engagement, major British news organisations such as the Guardian and the Times have failed to cover the story at all. A cynic might say that’s because of a lack of general concern over Islamophobic discrimination. At best, it can be put down to a fear of cultural insensitivity towards France, where laïcité – a concept without an English equivalent, but usually translated as ‘secularism’ – has become a central tenet of state-individual relations. In order to recognise the Islamophobia underlying this series of laws, we need to unpick it from the history of two essential threads in French history: Republicanism and laïcité.

The French Revolution is, as always, a good place to start. Religion was a large, if controversial, element of the platform on which the Revolution rose in 1789. Catholicism had been the majority religion in France for centuries. On the 4th of August 1789, less than a month after the Storming of the Bastille kickstarted the Revolution, the revolutionaries abolished the clergy as an institution and cancelled tithes (taxes paid to support the Church). Subsequently, on the 2nd of November, the Church’s wealth was confiscated and transferred to the state. Evidently, opposition to the Catholic Church was woven into the fabric of the Revolution.

Despite this, the idea of secularism took some time to become established as a French republican value. Through the early 1790s, France experimented with some wacky alternatives to Catholicism as their state religion. The atheistic “Cult of Reason” was sponsored by the state from 1793-4 and involved congregational worship and festivals to the ideal of reason. It was replaced as the state-sponsored religion in 1794 by Robespierre’s “Cult of the Supreme Being”, which revered a non-specific deity and had roots in Greco-Roman ideas of public virtue. The existence of these state religions shows that the French Republic was initially anti-clerical rather than secular.

In 1795, however, the state began to banish religious expression to the private sphere. A law was passed banning any external signs of religion, including parades, clothing, and bellringing. This goes beyond the English-language definition of secularism, because the state involved itself in the affairs of religion by the very act of prohibiting religious activities. Here we can see the beginnings of laïcité as a distinct concept from secularism. Rather than the state and religion being separate, the state specifically negates the public presence of religion; it’s a thread which can be followed to 2021’s anti-separatism bill.

Next, we have the 19th century in France: a messy fluctuation between revolution and counter-revolution, republic and monarchy, religion and secularism. To give an example, divorce (prohibited by the Catholic Church) was legalised during the Revolution, forbidden in 1816, and then reauthorized in 1884 – quite the rollercoaster. In this period, the separation between the public and private spheres became more defined. As Eugene Weber argued in his seminal 1976 work Peasants into Frenchmen, the Third Republic (1870-1940) ensured that the values of the Revolution, especially republicanism, were embedded into the national consciousness. Through the extension of primary education, the integration of the country by improved transport links, and widespread industrialisation, France became more culturally homogenised. The (now compulsory) education system taught children republican values, among them the religionless nature of the public sphere. These values were cemented in 1905 with the law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, which ended state recognition and funding of religious organisations, but preserved freedom of individual religion and – much like the British system – granted tax exemptions to churches. Here again, the republican notion of the separation between the public citizen and the private individual is clear.

The last major constitutional change concerning republicanism and laïcité was the Constitution of 1958, introduced by the Fifth Republic of France. The first article of the Constitution states that la France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale, where laïque is the adjectival form of laïcité. For the first time, laïcité was explicitly stated as a French value, irrevocable from the core of the Republic. As we have seen, it had gained a very specific meaning since the 1789 Revolution. Laïcité is intended to maintain the individual’s right to autonomy in their private home, while also preserving the public sphere as a space to express French citizenship over any other identity.

Where does all this history leave us in the 21st century? For a start, it’s clear that laïcité was predicated upon an almost entirely Christian society. It stemmed from conflict with the Catholic Church in the 18th century, when religious diversity was far lower and less visible in France. Even as the concept evolved, France was still focused primarily on curbing the power of the Catholic Church, which is reflected in the century-long struggle for the legalisation of divorce. But the France of today looks quite different. The Eurobarometer, a regularly conducted survey of EU states, found that the proportion of Muslims in France has increased from 3.3% of the population in 2015 to 5% in 2019, while roughly 40% of people identified as atheist in 2019, suggesting a complete overhaul of the once Catholic majority. Despite the clarity of these numbers, France has failed to adapt to this change.

A major part of laicite is the removal of religion from the public sphere. This is not an intolerant concept in and of itself, but it becomes so when it infringes upon the practices of one religion more than others, in this case Islam. We should not allow France to cite its culture and history to justify the Islamophobia inherent in the anti-separatism bill. With an understanding of the origins of French republicanism and secularism, it becomes clear that laïcité is a value from a world that no longer exists. France must learn to tolerate, rather than discriminate against, the hijab.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen : The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1976.

Bowen, John R. Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves : Islam, the State, and Public Space. Course Book ed. Princeton, NJ, 2010.

Hopkins, Carmen Teeple. “Social Reproduction in France: Religious Dress Laws and Laïcité.” Women’s Studies International Forum 48 (2015): 154.

The Economist, “What is French laïcité?”, The Economist, (2020)

Illustration by Mia Clement

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Megan is Video Editor, but she likes writing anything that she can relate back to her history degree and pretend it's 'revision'. Outside of academics, she plays violin with the Hertford College Music Society, is secretary for the Oxford University Historical Re-enactment Society, and enjoys walking her dogs who are in fact the cutest in the world (unofficial award).