In France, nobody in public would dare to say “I hate the Jewish religion and when I see a man wearing a skull cap I want to get off the bus.” Nobody can say “in this day and age, these great scientists refuse to use cars on Saturdays, and if they have to use an elevator they ask someone else to press on the button, this should not be allowed.” Nobody can say “They make their children wear the kippah and ensure they receive religious education at kindergarten age, female teachers wear thick black socks and cover their heads on hot summer days.” Nobody can complain that “Jewish women believe they should not have close contact with men, this is degrading to women.” Nobody can say “These men who wear tall black hats and have beards down to their stomachs, and women covered from head to toe is not something we want to see in the French society.” And this is how it is supposed to be; nobody can, or should for that matter discriminate against others because of their lifestyle or dress. But the reason why saying these or similar things about Jewish people in France today is considered unacceptable or even impossible is not due to public respect for the lifestyle of Jewish people. There was a time when all of this was said about Jews in France, and when they were even compared to the devil. Following extended anti-Semitic campaigns, France directly participated in the Holocaust that took place in the heart of Europe, led by Adolf Hitler 75 years ago.
It is disputable to what extent such bigotry can be addressed by laws, however, in 1990 a law initiated by Communist Party parliamentarian Jean-Claud Gayssot banning and criminalizing racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic acts was issued. With Gayssot’s law any discrimination based on membership or non-membership of an ethnic group, a nation, a race or religion was banned. But the difference in the law was that denying elements of the crimes against humanity was considered to be punishable within the framework of the decisions made by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Thus, while emphasizing the “uniqueness of the Holocaust”, anti-Semitism was included in the scope of crimes against humanity in France. So, although severely criticizing any religion is protected under freedom of speech, nobody can say “I hate the Jewish religion. I have the right to say this as part of my freedom of speech. I cannot tolerate the religious dress, appearance and symbols of these men” as it would be regarded as anti-Semitic and criticizing the Jewish religion is outside the boundary of protected speech.
Although France within its own historical conditions adopted animosity towards the Catholic Church, including a bloody war against it, and then virtually embraced secularism as a religion, a vast majority of the population are aware that this is a form of racism and do not overstep the mark when it comes to Jews! If they do, they face the public pressure first before they are confronted by the law.
Today, the surge of racism that was seen against French Jews 70 years ago is now targeting Muslims. This is apparent across the political spectrum, from the highest to the lowest state positions, and from the far right to the far left. It is a form of hostility and racism against Islam and Muslims that is becoming more severe every day.
In fact, this racist history towards Arabs particularly and Muslims in general, has always existed in France due to its dealings with its former Muslim colonies. However, apart from this history, a new form of racism emerged out of fanaticism and secular bigotry in the early 2000s within French society which heavily attacked Islam, Muslims and their lifestyle. In 2003, speaking on television, Claude Imbert, one of the founders of the weekly journal Le Point said (as if it was something normal) “To be honest, I am a little Islamophobic.” During these years, Islamophobia began to appear under the guise of secularism. As statements like Imbert’s began to surface in the country in general, polemics concerning disputes about the hijab worn by almost 500 students at a secondary-high school level appeared rather a form of discrimination than racism.
In March 2004, religious symbols were banned in schools. According to the law, large crosses, kippahs and headscarves, that is, religious symbols that are clearly apparent were banned in state schools. Although the law appears to include the three major religions, this was not the case in practice. At least half of Jewish children received their education since from kindergarten age in schools, which were either contracted or non-contracted to the state that protected religious freedom of Jews as a well-established religious community in France, so this law did not concern them. While, children of Christian families attended private Catholic schools, this law also did not concern them either. The few Muslim families that could afford to, sent their children to Catholic schools and the others were forced to remove their headscarves.
After September 11, a full page photo of women wearing the burqa suddenly began to appear on the covers of weekly magazines (according to one view, in order to convince the French public who disapproved of the American occupation of Afghanistan). As a result, coincidentally or not, in 2005, the term “Islamophobia” found its way into dictionaries alongside the words “burqa and hijab.”
In the prestigious French Robert dictionary, “Islamophobia” is defined as “a special form of racism aimed at Islam and Muslims”, it was expounded together with xenophobia and anti-Semitism. But even if these three definitions appear together in the dictionary, from the very beginning, there has been something different in regards to the Islamophobia.
While not a single person would come out in public and boast “I am xenophobic or I am anti-Semitic” from the very beginning there were individuals who described themselves as Islamophobic and even bragged about it. These were not marginal people, but well-known individuals that had a vast influential network including politicians, intellectuals and journalists. For example, while Françoise Laborde, senator of the Radical Left Party said “I like being called an Islamophobe”, there are others like journalist Oliver Rolin that used other methods to demonstrate this. Listing the terror events in the world claimed to be carried out by Muslims, he was asking “why is Islamophobia such a wrong thing.” During his term as president, Sarkozy opened the doors further saying “as soon as we say Islam we are accused of being Islamophobic.” A few years later, philosopher Elizabeth Badinter appealed to the public “Do not fear being labeled Islamophobic, voice your thoughts. I am not afraid, nobody should be afraid.” Manuel Valls, the Socialist Prime Minister of that period supported Badinter’s views published in Le Monde by sharing it on his social media.
In a short time, views which took pride in being Islamophobic, and targeted Muslims began to spread rapidly. Manuel Valls, who often wore the kippah at Jewish rituals, declared that “Islamic symbols are besieging the streets, which means revolting against the republic.” This was followed by the words of right wing extremist Eric Zemmour “Islam is not compatible with France, the French have become foreigners in their own country, Muslims have to choose between Islam and France.” Michel Houellebecq, a journalist went even further and said “I will give an interview in which I call for a civil war to rid France of Islam.” Around the same period, in response to a question about Muslim women choosing to dress as they do, Laurence Rossignol, Minister for Family, children and Women’s rights said “Yes, and there were also blacks in America that supported slavery” but later apologized for her remarks. Senator François Laborde’s reference was not to slaves, she said that wearing a headscarf “In a way, it’s the same question as prostitution. There are choices which are non-choices!” In one of his cartoons, famous cartoonist of Le Monde newspaper depicted “women wearing headscarves as two terrorists preparing a kamikaze attack.”
According to the socialist President of that period Hollande, “France has a problem with Islam, and no one doubts this.” After the president, continuing his Islamophobic abuse Nicolas Sarkozy along with former prime ministers, ministers, rabbis, intellectuals and artists called for: “Some of the verses to be removed from the Qur’an, or France will not be the same again!” President Macron said he respected veiled women on one hand, and on the other said “But I want to make sure that they are wearing veils and headscarves out of personal choice. The headscarf does not conform to the civility of the French society that is a country committed to the equality of men and women.” He must have forgotten about the country’s colonial past because according to the president “France had ties with Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism, but not with Islam. The French are afraid of this recent situation.”
Last year, the Islamophobic discourse that emerged once again under the guise of secularism, gender equality and prefaced with the repeated argument “according to our values”, carried on for weeks because of a sports hijab put on the market by a French sportswear brand. Aurore Berge, spokesperson for Macron’s party accused the brand of not respecting French values and asked the people to boycott the brand. Valerie Rabault, Head of the Socialist Group at the National Assembly also agreed with this, and in response to criticism asked “What do you mean racism! Is there a race born with a veil?” According to Republican spokesperson Lydia Guirous, it went hand in hand with “the submission of women”, while according to some MPs, this is “simply launching the process of sexual apartheid.”
This hostile environment that flares up again and again, and each time suffocates Muslims even more is sometimes led by the extreme right, sometimes by left wingers and sometimes the right wingers, and what’s more, a majority of the time they all take the same stance. Last month, far-right representative Julien Odoul shouted at a woman wearing the veil who was accompanying her son on a school trip to a regional council meeting. He demanded that she “take her scarf off immediately or leave the room.” At first the woman just looked at him finding it strange that he said such a thing, then when she heard other people shouting similar words and noticing that her son was upset she left the room in tears. In an interview later she said: “You have destroyed my life.”
Amidst debates that emerged when images of the incident appeared on social media, Macron’s Minister of National Education Jean Michel Blanquer not only refrained from condemning this far-right politician, but also said “the Muslim veil is not desirable in the French society.” Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Rally (FN) party naturally took advantage of this and carried the issue even further: She said in the situation in schools and in the streets the Jewish kippah did not make anyone uncomfortable, but because of the veil all kinds of religious symbols should be banned and wanted the Jewish community to make sacrifices in this issue. Efforts to ban parents who wear religious clothing from accompanying their children on school trips was approved, with the French senate proposing the ban. Although it appears unlikely that the proposal will be approved by the international assembly and put into force, whether it is legislated or not, the fingers of blame are pointed at mothers wearing headscarves. These distorted views are being taught to these children at the risk of being alienated from their friends, their friends’ families and even their own mothers. Amidst debates that flared up with this incident, speaking on LCI television, Yves Thereard, Deputy Editor of Figaro newspaper said “I hate Islam. When I see a woman wearing a headscarf on a bus I get off.” Speaking on LCI television, journalist Olivier Galzi advocates that the hijab should be banned like the SS uniforms. Senator Jean Louis Masson likened veiled women to witches. And on 28 October, a person claimed to be a right wing extremist by police, shot and wounded two people leaving the mosque in Bayonne.
The Muslim minority that constitutes five percent of the population in France, whether these are religious individuals or not, face a continuous atmosphere of discrimination everywhere, on the television screens, on the covers of newspapers and magazines, in the street, in restaurants, on the metro, in their workplaces. As for the discourse, being Islamophobic is almost a source of pride in France and expressions such as “Dirty Muslim” or “All Muslims are terrorists” are somehow the only comments regarded as being offensive and are subjected to trial in this broader climate of hate.