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France's cynical abaya ban reflects country's twisted priorities

France's ban on the abaya is the latest example of state Islamophobia and a grave violation of laicite, as well as a cynical electoral strategy to seduce the far right and split the left
French Education Minister Gabriel Attal (C) attending a meeting at the Bourbon high school in Saint-Denis-de-la-Reunion on the first day of school on the French overseas island of La Reunion on 17 August, 2023 (AFP)

France's latest ban on abaya dresses (as well as qamis and djellabas) in public schools will not surprise any observer of the French political scene since the so-called "headscarves affairs" first broke out in October 1989.

At the time, three Muslim girls were kicked out of their school in the city of Creil for refusing to remove their hijab. The incident was followed by a long list of increasingly virulent state and societal Islamophobic acts with the abaya ban as its latest edition.

Gabriel Attal, the 34-year-old newly appointed national education and youth minister under President Emmanuel Macron, is thus unsurprisingly following what is now an old, well-established and predictable script. Using the same rhetorical toolkit, he invokes the fallacious ready-made argument of "the defence of the Republic" against alleged "provocateurs" (those young girls who wear abayas) who "test", "attack", and "seek to destabilise" our nation.

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It is the same fake alibi, couched in hysterical rhetoric, which state officials employ each time they want to ban this or that visible manifestation and public presence of Islam, especially feminine outfits like the burkini or the hijab of female soccer players (the hijabeuses), to name just two other recent French campaigns prior to this latest ban.

Following months of controversy about whether or not abayas should be banned, this decision, announced by Attal during his very first high-profile interview on 28 August, is simply the latest episode of France's old witch hunt against any Muslim (or those perceived as such) too visible in the public space, or clothing too "ostensible", as the March 2004 law states.

Twisted priorities

Despite its banality for a country that has sadly become a world pioneer of state Islamophobia and is increasingly seen as such internationally, this ban is nonetheless particularly shocking, even for those who have come to expect such developments from France.

The new ban is shocking because of the odd and twisted priorities it reveals as the public school system has been collapsing under multiple structural problems

First by its zeal and rapidity: Attal was appointed by Macron less than a month ago, having assumed office on 20 July, but the measure, which will impact tens of thousands of schools, took place on Monday, the first day of the new school year.

There was apparently a national emergency of the first order here as this measure seemingly took effect faster than I had time to write these lines, though no one knows exactly how it will be implemented on the ground. The next few weeks will tell us.

Attal has nonetheless been firm on the fact that if those students refuse to remove their outfits, they will not be allowed to attend classes. And Macron went even further by insisting that the enforcement of the ban will be "uncompromising".

Second, the new ban is shocking because of the odd and twisted priorities it reveals. For years, the public school system has been collapsing under multiple structural problems, including dramatically insufficient salaries, the loss of social consideration and status for teachers, increasingly difficult working conditions, and high levels of burnout, anxiety, and depression.

One consequence of the degraded situation of the French public school system has been the difficulty (the impossibility, really) in attracting enough teachers, which for years has resulted in a grave recruiting crisis, doubled by a crisis of trying to find temporary replacements.

As a result, last year, 4,000 full-time teaching positions were not staffed and a staggering 12 million hours of classes could not be delivered to the students. And that was in junior high schools alone.

In today's France, millions simply can no longer keep up financially and are reduced to saving on food and skipping meals. The latest figures show that no fewer than 16 percent of the entire French population is going hungry and depriving themselves of food. Even those who could afford enough to eat without going hungry had to change their diets and adopt cheaper food options.

Now, after seeing their already insufficient purchasing power decreased by a full year of inflation, which in the key areas of food and energy reached 15 percent or more, the already impoverished French have to face yet another price hike of 23 percent on school materials compared to last year.

Yet, the very first measure of Macron's new education and youth minister will have been to ban abayas and qamis on the very first day of classes.

Violating laicite

This measure, presented, as usual, as a necessary defence of "laicite" against the "Islamist offensive", is evidently the opposite of that. It is just part of the ongoing, extreme falsification and weaponisation of the noble liberal ideals, text, and spirit of the 1905 secularism law that has been perverted beyond recognition into Islamophobic weapons to target once again a Muslim population or certain segments of it that stubbornly resist their erasure from public space.

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One of the main pillars of this famous laicite a la francaise, which nowadays is invoked by figures like Attal only to be trampled on and turned into what it is not, is the non-interference of the state in matters of religious doctrine and faith. This independence of religions to decide their own creed in a sovereign manner is, or should be, the well-understood pendant, the flipside of the separation of the state from, and non-interference in, organised religions.

Yet, Attal and the entire Macron administration behind him are now deciding what is "Islamic", bluntly declaring that all abayas and qamis are "ostensible religious outfits" and, therefore, fall under the March 2004 law banning those from public schools.

This violation of France's secularism in its separation of church and state dimension is in this case even more glaringly obvious since almost all of the country's representative Islamic authorities such as the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) have assessed that those outfits are actually not in themselves religious by essence - though they can occasionally be worn as such - but cultural, traditional Middle Eastern clothes.

This is also the position of prominent Muslim theologians and imams such as Tareq Oubrou and Ghaleb Bencheikh, who is the president of the Foundation for a French Islam, which just like the CFCM, was entirely set up by the French government itself as the face of a true "Republican Islam", an official Islam which Bencheikh, in France a familiar face, has incarnated better than anyone else.

It is thus deeply ironic that we now have a "secular" government, constitutionally banned from deciding on theological issues, second-guessing and contradicting their own appointed Muslim authorities and institutions in matters of Islamic doctrine.

Religious or not?

The reality on the ground strongly tends to confirm the theological assessment of France's Islamic authorities.

The media outlets that have bothered to investigate why young girls wear abayas - something the government itself clearly did not do in yet another sign of utmost contempt for French Muslims - show that if some do wear it as a symbol of faith, that does not seem to be the case for the majority of French Muslims.

For example, 16-year-old Karima explains that she sometimes wears that dress because "it's comfortable, practical, but really it's a dress like any other, it has nothing to do with religion. At no time in religion are we ordered to put on an abaya. I know non-Muslims who put it on."

Maryssa, a 17-year-old, wears it "occasionally, because it's a simple outfit, quick to put on when I'm too lazy to dress up, or one with decorations for special occasions". It is also "a fashionable garment…taken up by the big luxury houses, but also Zara or H&M."

Other non-Muslim, non-Arab girls wear it out of Orientalist exoticism because "it makes me look like an Oriental princess".

Electoral strategies

The opportunistic electoral strategy at work in this decision presents an even more cynical motivation for the ban.

Besides the obvious attempt to appeal to the conservative and far-right voters for whom there will never be enough bans like this, and who keep accusing the government of "weakness towards Islamists", Macron seeks to fracture his left opposition in three different ways, in a classic divide-and-conquer manoeuvre.

First, because the main leftist coalition assembled by Jean-Luc Melenchon in the last presidential campaign, the New Ecological and Social People's Union (NUPES), is anything but a solid monolithic bloc, especially on questions related to laicite and Islam.

France's state officials are polishing their credentials through Islam-bashing, and building their careers on the backs of their Muslim compatriots

As shown again by their divergent reactions to this ban, it is actually deeply divided between the centre-left parties like the Socialist and the Communist Party who mostly support such bans and laws (the August 2021 separatism bill etc) versus those who fight Islamophobia more vigorously, especially Melenchon's own La France Insoumise.

Each of those parties is furthermore internally divided on those issues. Finally, there is also a deep divide between the leaders and prominent figures of the NUPES coalition such as Melenchon himself and Clementine Autain, who are resolutely against such bans which they are currently fighting tooth and nail, and their own voters who are predominantly for the ban.

This ban is thus a perfect tool to weaken the opposition. On the one hand, it reopens and aggravates the double internal split within the left in general and NUPES in particular over such measures; on the other hand, it emphasises the division, widens the gap, and drives a wedge between the main opposition leaders like Melenchon and their own voters.

More than ever, France's state officials and aspiring prime ministers and presidents like Attal are polishing their "tough on Islamism" credentials through Islam-bashing, and building their careers on the backs of their Muslim compatriots.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Dr Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA. He has written and lectured widely in the US, Europe and beyond on contemporary French culture, politics, literature and the arts and more recently on Islam and Muslims. His works have been published in several countries in academic journals, think tanks, and mainstream and specialized media such as Saphirnews, Milestones. Commentaries on the Islamic World, and Les Cahiers de l'Islam. His recent essay entitled “The Twin Myths of the Western ‘Jihadist Threat’ and ‘Islamic Radicalisation ‘” is available in French and English on the site of the UK Cordoba Foundation.
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