France's distinctive take on secularism is once again making headlines. A sacred virtue of the Republic, it is unquestionable within the hexagon where political careers are built on its defence. But a recent case is causing controversy. The decision by France's High court (Court of Cassation) to overturn the dismissal of Muslim nursery nurse, Fatima Afif for wearing a headscarf while working at a Paris crèche in 2008, has placed the spotlight on the increasingly politicised use of the term.
On March 19th, the court ruled that the private nature of the crèche rendered her firing a "discrimination on the basis of religious convictions", overturning two earlier rulings by an employment tribunal in 2010 and a court of appeal in 2011, and ordering the crèche pay her 2500 euros. Many French Muslims viewed the decision with muted optimism, hoping that the precedent set by the court would protect French Muslim women from misapplications of the law on laicite and unfair dismissals. In 2012, a report by Amnesty international found that Muslim women are routinely "denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress, such as the headscarf." The report also found that legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment is not being appropriately implemented, despite contravening European Union (EU) anti-discrimination legislation.
But in a sign of just how politicised Islamic issues have become in France, within days of the ruling, Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls responded by expressing his "regret" at the court's verdict, while former Prime Minister Francois Fillon took the opportunity to call for an extension of the law on laicite to all work places, including the private sector. Within days, the case had reignited the "laicite debate", fuelling endless discussions over French identity and the alleged intractability of Muslims.
From the late '80s when the first case concerning Muslim women's dress became a political issue, the reach of laicite has crept ever more worryingly into the private sphere. The 2004 ban on "ostensible religious symbols" in schools, has been followed by the 2010 ban on face veils in "public spaces". For its opponents, such legislation has bolstered various forms of anti-Muslim prejudice, apparent in a range of worrying developments, from discrimination in housing and employment, through to attacks on Muslims and their places of worship.
Many perceive the discourse on laicite as a cover for a stigmatisation of French Muslims who already face widespread discrimination and racism. A 2010 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) found discrimination in access to employment, education, housing, and goods and services. A young activist currently lobbying MPs to reject any new legislation, told me that the discourse on laicite now allows for the expression of a respectable form of racism which specifically targets Muslims.
In his election pledge, President Hollande promised to be a figure of unity, decrying Sarkozy's divisive policies, pandering to the Far-Right, and portraying himself as a president for "all French citizens". According to one poll, 93% of French Muslims voted for the Socialist candidate, but many have been left disappointed.
In 2012, then spokesperson for the Socialist party, Benoît Hamon expressed surprise at support from socialist senators for the "anti-veiled nanny" law, as it has come to be known, describing it as "collateral damage from the debate on national identity" initiated by the Right in 2009 and affirming that the Socialist party would not support such a law if it came to power. But within a week of the High court ruling, and following a petition by public figures calling for a new "law on laicite", President Hollande added his voice to the clamour, venturing that "where there is contact with children, in what we call public service nurseries, in a crèche which benefits from public funding, there must be a certain similarity with what occurs in schools", referring to the 2004 ban on "ostensible religious symbols." Worse news still for French Muslim women was his apparent willingness to consider an extension of the law to all companies "in contact with the public or undertaking a mission of general interest or of public service", just as MPs on the Right are pushing for the law to cover all work places, public and private.
In response, 40 public figures, academics and intellectuals published a statement on March 28th, which gathered over 3000 signatures, opposing the law and calling for a commission on islamophobia.
Historically, the Left's record is no more tolerant than the Right's on Muslim issues. The Left overwhelmingly backed the 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools and it was a French socialist minister who proposed the criminalisation of face veils. In 2010, First Secretary of the Socialist Party Martine Aubry voiced that unlike the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) which had put forward a Muslim candidate who wore the veil in regional elections, the socialist party would not have accepted such a candidate.
However a number of dissenting voices within the Socialist party have begun to make themselves heard, seeking to distance themselves from anti-Muslim rhetoric viewed as the legacy of the Sarkozy era. Among them, MPs Razzy Hammadi, Alexis Bachelay and Christophe Caresche have already spoken publicly, emphasising that laicite comes with responsibility, but also rights, including the right to freedom of conscience. Caresche denounced any extension of the ban on religious symbols to private companies, arguing that "French universalism, in the name of which republican principles are invoked, is less and less universal and more and more French" and warned that proposals put forward by the Right to extend the ban to all work places and even in public spaces, could produce greater exclusion.
Marwan Muhammad, from the Collective against Islamophobia in France says a grassroots campaign started by his organisation is beginning to change attitudes in France's national assembly, including that of up to 20 predominantly Leftist MPs: "Public opinion is progressively realising the abuses occurring under the pretext of laicite and an increasing number of people are realising that you can't ban people from workplaces or you risk affecting social cohesion. There is no French cultural exception which can justify racism towards Muslim women."
As it stands, Muslim women who wear the veil struggle to find any type of employment, with few exceptions. The spread of intolerant attitudes using the cover of laicite was recently illustrated in the case of 15 year old student Sirine Ben Yahiaten, expelled from school for wearing a headband and long skirt, deemed "too religious" by her teachers. Some within the Left have expressed concerns that the instrumentalisation of laicite to create increasingly stringent guidelines prohibiting people of faith from exercising their religion, will contribute to ghettoization and marginalisation, as faith groups are pushed to forge separate schools and companies willing to accommodate their religious needs.
But with some polls suggesting a majority of over 80% would support a ban on the extension of religious symbols in places involving contact with children, it seems Muslim women's struggle against employment discrimination is far from over. Having expressed his support for the new law, any backing down by Hollande now will be painted by his rivals as a capitulation to 'Muslim radicals' at a time when his popularity is already at an all time low. But with growing dissension within his own party and the government, the 'laicite debate' won't be ending any time soon.