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French Court Ruling Reignites 'Laicite' Vs Headscarf Debate

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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.‎