PARIS – Many Western media outlets were highly critical of France’s 2010 law banning face coverings, such as burqas that cover a woman’s face and entire body, and local decrees adopted this year banning full-body “burkini” swimsuits on public beaches have drawn further negative attention. French-bashing in the press is nothing new, but those who criticize these measures ignore the historical and sociopolitical reasons for why most French people support them.
For starters, secularism – or laïcité – is a defining principle of French society. Under the French Constitution – which upholds freedom of conscience as well as freedom of speech – all citizens may choose any religion, or none at all; alternatively, they may criticize and mock religious beliefs and customs.
In 2004, the French Constitutional Council deemed the French Constitution to be compliant with the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. In order “to reconcile the principle of freedom of religion and that of secularism,” the Council ruled, “the Constitution forbids “persons to profess religious beliefs for the purpose of noncompliance with the common rules governing relations between public communities and private individuals.”
In France, recent events seem to pose a direct challenge this principle. In 1765, the agnostic French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists who were murdered by two Islamist radicals in January 2015 were carrying on the Enlightenment tradition Voltaire helped start, and that attack had a chilling effect on a distinctly French form of free speech. The death threats against Charlie Hebdo are still rolling in, most recently following its publication of cartoons depicting the burkini debate.
Alongside French secularism is feminism, a principle also enshrined in the Constitution. Since 1999, Article 1 has established a gender balance in all French decision-making bodies, from the National Assembly to local government bodies, boards of directors, and so forth. While the proverbial glass ceiling hasn’t been shattered entirely, there are now more women in high-level leadership positions in France than ever before.
Like secularism, this institutionalized gender parity is at odds with conservative interpretations of Islam, which often call for modest dress and gender segregation in hospitals, swimming pools, and driving schools. And, in many French Muslim communities, conservative imams have more influence in shaping the status of women than do school teachers or other local leaders.
With France’s strong culture of feminism, many French citizens consider gender segregation and face covering to be repressive, even when they are said to be a woman’s choice. France has a history of welcoming immigrants, especially between the two World Wars; but it has never before been confronted with attitudes and behavior that not only violate its constitutional principles, but openly defy them.
French law forbids data-collection based on ethnicity or religion, but it is estimated that 8-9% of France’s 66 million citizens are Muslim – alongside Germany, the largest Muslim population in Europe – and half are believed to be younger than 24 years old. Most French Muslims are not new arrivals, but came during the Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian independence movements in the 1960s, meaning that young Muslims today belong to the third generation of that immigration wave. Many have been very successful, especially the young women, who are excelling in an increasingly competitive labor market.
However, many young Muslims feel frustrated with their living conditions and betrayed by the French promise of equality, leading them to question and challenge French principles. As a demographic group, they feel the weight of endemic unemployment, which averages 25% among young people and 40% in the banlieues, the housing estates surrounding many of France’s major cities, where many Muslim families live.
Under these conditions, it is common for young people to blame society, which they believe has given them short shrift, for their poor school performance and other adverse outcomes. For some, alienation finds an outlet in hatred of France, violent anti-Semitism, and rejection of French values, to the point that they come to define their identity more through an extreme interpretation of Islam than through French citizenship.
For decades, French governments have tried to paint over the problem by pouring billions of euros into so-called “urban-policy” programs to fix up dilapidated housing projects. But there can be no painting over the heinous crimes perpetrated in France over the past two years by disenchanted young Muslims who had embraced radical Islam.
The list is alarming. After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in January 2015, there was the mass murder committed at the Bataclan theater and other Paris sites in November 2015; the truck attack on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais this summer; the subsequent murder at a Catholic church in Normandy of a beloved priest, whose throat was cut during mass; the attack on a private home outside Paris, where a married couple of police officers were murdered in front of their child; and the stabbing of a Jewish man in Strasbourg this month.
These incidents are reinforcing populist movements in France and throughout Europe. In France itself, such attacks are being used to justify more anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who could make it to the second round of next year’s presidential election.
Against this backdrop of collective trauma, many French citizens believe that the survival of the Republic itself is at stake. And they see no reason why France’s characteristic pluralism and tolerance should become the means of its destruction.