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France's PM ignores his country's real problems to focus on banning the headscarf

Manuel Valls wants to ban hijab-wearing Muslim women from higher education in the name of their 'liberation'

Last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls reiterated his intense attacks against Muslims. Justifying the targeting of veiled Muslim women, he gave an interview for Libération in which he declared his willingness to prohibit the Muslim headscarf in universities.

A few days prior to that, he attended a public event during which he declared that in spite of high unemployment and economic problems, what mattered the most was the "identity and cultural battle".

His targeting of Muslims is not new. French Muslims were already the first targets of the government's heavy-handed response during the state of emergency and Manuel Valls did not hesitate to speak of "Islamofascism" or a "clash of civilisations" while at the same time refusing to use the word "Islamophobia", which he characterises as being a Trojan horse of fundamentalist groups.

In a country experiencing turmoil as it tries to recover from a bloody year, his only concern seems to be his Muslim fellow citizens.

At the Déjazet theatre in Paris, prior to the Libération interview, he denounced his Muslim fellow citizens and women who wear the headscarf, while admitting: “Yes, there is unemployment” only to add “the most important thing is the identity battle, the cultural battle”.

While our youth are marching and occupying Place de la République to express their worries about their future and are joined by dissenters from all sides of the political spectrum, he had no words for them, despite being on a stage only metres away. What a symbol! The prime minister of the republic ignoring the people demonstrating in Place de la République and, instead of listening to their concerns, retorting that the true issue is not their future - but a woman wearing a headscarf. That she is banned from public schools and denied employment is not enough for him, he wants to ban her from higher education in the name of her "liberation".

Admittedly, I have become accustomed to his extreme language and have resigned myself to accepting that in 2016, France has a prime minister who only speaks to himself and his followers. But this time, he really went all out.

What has he done all this time being in charge of the government? He was expected to fight unemployment, yet it skyrocketed to its 1997 level. He had a duty to protect us, yet we suffered two waves of terrorist attacks that took the lives of 149 of our brothers and sisters. He had a moral obligation to unite us, yet he divided us with his debate on citizenship. He was given the keys to the country, yet he wanted to violate our Constitution.

While demonstrations are spreading across the country to protest against his unfair policies, his only answer is to further exclude some of the country's female population who are already under a social death sentence because they chose to cover their heads.

He could have been on the front page of Libération with concrete proposals for the country, yet there he was, only commenting on current events and without any proposals to help us get out of the mess that he put us in. His only proposal is to occupy public space with his obsession with Muslims, those who seem to haunt his nights and fill his days, while the country is worrying day and night about its future, starting with issues related to employment, health care, education, retirement and security.

But none of this seems to matter to him. Like the former minister of interior, Gaston Defferre, who in the 1980s proclaimed that the strikes of Muslim workers were “holy wars” ordered by “the Iranian mullahs”, Valls now proclaims that women who decide to dress modestly are political militants acting on behalf of "Salafi" groups. Just like his predecessors, whenever Muslims use existing rights, it becomes a political statement.

What does he have to say about public schools, which are the cornerstone of our republican pact and which have become the most unequal in Western Europe? What does he have to say to those 140,000 young people who leave school each year without any qualifications? What does he have to say about the 2.5 million people reduced to living on welfare checks, which we have never seen before?

What does he have to say about tax evasion in the midst of the “Panama Papers”, which shed light on a tax fraud costing us $90bn a year? What does he have to say about funds misappropriated by the rich while we are suffocated by taxes? What does he have to say to our youth, when 26 percent of them are unemployed? What does he have to offer those who no longer believe in Mr Valls or in the current political system? What does he have to say to the millions of people he has disappointed? That the important issue is the headscarf and all will be fine once it disappears?

How can he denounce the headscarf or the visibility of Muslims, which he perceives to be a symbol of fundamentalist ideology, when he just entered into several arms supply contracts with the Saudi regime? He wants to free the Muslim woman who did not ask anything from him, yet he despises her. How coherent is this?

He could have done something good. Maybe he is not capable of it, maybe he does not want to, but the results speak for themselves and I understand that, like a dunce trying to hide his grades from his family, he would rather speak about something else. Instead of giving reasons to hope together, he creates reasons to fear one another. What kind of statesman enjoys seeing his country divided and weakened in times of great socioeconomic challenges and a profound terrorist threat?

He even dared to question whether Islam is compatible with the republic. He may not have been very brilliant in school, but history does not lie. It was the religion of those tens of thousands of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for her during two world wars. It was also the religion of those dignitaries from the Grand Mosque of Paris who harboured Jews and saved them from death camps while the Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis by deporting them in packed trains.

It is also the religion of millions of people who ask only to live in peace in their country, and who for the most part had established roots in our national territory long before Valls emigrated here from Spain in the 1980s. Please, it is not the compatibility of Islam with the republic that he has to prove, but rather his own.

It is true that he needs to position himself for the presidential election of 2017. But what kind of candidate will he be? A candidate who will obscure his record as head of the government and only speak about his obsession with Muslims? We deserve more than that. The intensity of his attacks is an attempt to conceal his weaknesses.

What will remain from his role as prime minister? Not much, except a bad memory of a man who did not rise to the challenge and who, overwhelmed by his failures, opted to harm his country rather than ask himself why he had failed.

-Yasser Louati is the spokesperson of the Collective Against Islamphobia in France (CCIF) and head of its international relations desk. You can follow him on Twitter @yasserlouati

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

Photo: French Prime minister Manuel Valls gives a speech during the 3rd Interministerial committee in the Equality and in the Citizenship on 13 April, 2016 in Vaulx-en-Velin near Lyon, southeastern France (AFP).

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