Muslim students’ robes are latest fault line for French identity

When the French education minister declared that the abayas favored by some Muslim women “can no longer be worn in schools,” he stoked a fierce debate over the country’s secular ideals.


By Roger Cohen

New York Times (15.09.2023) – The mass French return to work, known as the “rentrée,” is often marked by renewed social conflict. This year has been no exception as the summer lull has given way to yet another battle over a recurrent national obsession: How Muslim women should dress.

Late last month, with France still in vacation mode, Gabriel Attal, 34, the newly appointed education minister and a favorite of President Emmanuel Macron, declared that “the abaya can no longer be worn in schools.”

His abrupt order, which applies to public middle and high schools, banished the loosefitting full-length robe worn by some Muslim students and ignited another storm over French identity.

The government believes the role of education is to dissolve ethnic or religious identity in a shared commitment to the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship and so, as Mr. Attal put it, “you should not be able to distinguish or identify the students’ religion by looking at them.”

Since then, organizations representing the country’s large Muslim minority of about five million people have protested; some girls have taken to wearing kimonos or other long garments to school to illustrate their view that the ban is arbitrary; and a fierce debate has erupted over whether Mr. Attal’s August surprise, just before students went back to their classrooms, was a vote-seeking provocation or a necessary defense of the secularism that is France’s ideological foundation.

“Attal wanted to look tough, and draw the political benefits, but this was cheap courage,” said Nicolas Cadène, the co-founder of an organization that monitors laïcité in France, which is broadly the idea of a nondiscriminatory society where the state upholds strict religious neutrality. “Real courage would be to tackle the lack of social mingling in our schools, leading to segregated development and separate ethnic and religious identification.”

France banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in middle and high schools almost two decades ago. This, like the Second Amendment in the United States, left much room for interpretation.

The issue has been whether the 2004 law took aim equally at Muslim head scarves, Catholic crosses and Jewish kipas, for example, or was in effect a means to target an Islam viewed as increasingly threatening. The abaya, a garment that generally reflects Muslim religious affiliation but may merely amount to the choice of modest attire, had inhabited a gray area until Mr. Attal’s pronouncement.

In practice, “ostentatious,” as interpreted by school officials, has tended to mean Muslim. France’s concern over the fracturing of its secular model, fueled by a series of devastating attacks by Islamist terrorists, has focused on the perceived danger that Muslims will shun purportedly universal “Frenchness” in favor of their religious identity, and fanaticism in its name.

The niqab, the veil, the burkini, the abaya and even the head scarves worn by Muslim women accompanying children on school trips have all been pored over in France to a degree unusual in Europe — and much more so in the United States, which posits freedom of religion in contrast to French freedom from religion.

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No French president would ever suggest that God bless France. The country’s lay model supplants any deity. A 2021 survey from IFOP, a leading French polling group, found that half of French people identify as atheists, a far greater proportion than in the United States.

Over recent years, laïcité, set out in a 1905 law that removed the Roman Catholic Church from public life, has hardened from a broadly accepted and little debated model that permitted freedom of conscience into a rigid and contested dogma. It has been passionately embraced on the right, and supported by a wide spectrum of society, as the French defense against everything from Islamist fundamentalism to American multiculturalism.

“This should have been done in 2004, and would have been if we did not have gutless leaders,” Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration leader, said of Mr. Attal’s announcement. “As General MacArthur observed, lost battles can be summed up in two words: too late.”

The question is: too late for what? To ban the abaya from schools, as Mr. Attal now demands? Or to stop the spread of inferior, understaffed schools in ghettoized, drug-plagued neighborhoods on the outskirts of big cities, where the opportunities for children of Muslim immigrants are diminished and the possibility of radicalization increased?

Here is where France splits — not down the middle, because Mr. Attal’s ban has an approval level of over 80 percent, according to polls, but in critical ways for the country’s future sense of itself.

Where some still see laïcité as the core of a supposedly colorblind nation of equal opportunity, others see a form of hypocrisy that masks how far from unprejudiced France has become, as illustrated by those troubled suburbs with large Muslim populations.

Hence the explosiveness just beneath the surface of French life.

Fury still lingers over the beheading by an Islamist extremist of Samuel Paty, a teacher who in 2020 showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class to illustrate how free speech works in a secular France.

At the same time, the nights of violent rioting in June this year that followed a police officer’s shooting of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan descent, demonstrated the pent-up rage stirred by the feeling that to be Muslim in France is to be at greater risk.

“The French government that invokes the laws of 1905 and 2004 to ‘protect the values of the Republic’ from an adolescent dress reveals its great weakness and lack of initiative in creating a peaceful form of living together that would ignore differences,” Agnès de Féo, a sociologist, wrote in the daily Le Monde.

To which Éric Ciotti, a leader of the Republicans, a center-right party, retorted that “communautarisme” — or identification first and foremost with a religious or ethnic identity — is “a leprosy that threatens the Republic.” Mr. Attal, he said in a statement, had given the appropriate response.

The views of the Republicans are important to Mr. Macron because his Renaissance party and its centrist allies do not have an absolute majority in Parliament, and their likeliest ally in passing legislation is probably Mr. Ciotti’s party.

In this sense, Mr. Attal’s decision has a clear political dimension. Mr. Macron governs from the center but leans right.

Mr. Attal took over one of the most sensitive of French ministries in July, after his predecessor, Pap Ndiaye, the first Black education minister, was effectively hounded from office by a torrent of rightist abuse, with thinly veiled racism appearing to lace much of the vitriol against him.

He was targeted for his supposed importation into France of America’s “doctrine of diversity” and his “reduction of everything to skin color,” as Valeurs Actuelles magazine, an extreme-right publication, put it this spring.


In June, just before he was ousted, Mr. Ndiaye rejected a sweeping ban on abayas of the kind adopted by Mr. Attal and upheld by a top French court last week. He said, “We are not going to edit a catalog of hundreds of pages with dresses of different colors and forms of sleeves.”


Rather, Mr. Ndiaye said, decisions about abayas should be left to the discretion of school principals.


Outside a high school in the northern Paris commune of Stains, Sheik Sidibe, a 21-year-old Black teaching assistant, said he had until recently worked at a school where the principal “showed a lack of respect” to Muslim students, “putting in place checkpoints where she arbitrarily decided which students could enter and which not” and criticizing Muslim women who chose to wear head scarves in the street.


“We should focus on real problems, like lousy teachers’ salaries,” said Mr. Sidibe, who is Muslim. “We have students living in states of extreme precariousness and we marginalize them even more. Our mission should not be to police clothes.”


The political ramifications of Mr. Attal’s measure remain to be seen. What appears clear already is that in a restive French society, it has been more polarizing than unifying, the declared aim of laïcité.

“Laïcité must be a form of liberty, the equality of everyone whatever their convictions,” Mr. Cadène said. “It must not turn into a weapon to silence or block people. That is not how you make it attractive.”


Photo credits: Denis Charlet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images