In France, Secularism Is a Justification for Discrimination Against Muslims

Growing up in the US, I admired France’s secular vision of social democracy. But teaching in Lyon’s working-class suburbs taught me that, in practice, laïcité is a rallying cry for a Right desperate to exclude Muslims from public life.

If France wants to maintain its status as a multicultural democracy, it must reevaluate whether laïcité and the limitations it enforces work for all French citizens, not just the white bourgeois. (Getty Images)

Outside the Lycée Robert Doisneau in Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon, France, there is a large circular window that doubles as a mirror. Every morning, I watch my students gather around it to remove their hijabs, pin back stray hairs, and tighten loose ponytails before crossing the border into their high school. Throughout the day, they wrap their veils around their necks like scarves, ready for the moment they will cross the border again, crowding around the same mirror to pin it back in place.

This ritual is not unique to the Lycée Robert Doinseau or the city of Lyon; it is a tenet of the French education system, the consequence of a 2004 law that banned the presence of “conspicuous religious symbols” in schools on the basis of the French principle of laïcité (the oft-forgotten “ité” of the liberté, egalité, fraternité trinity), translated into English as “secularism,” or the separation of church and state. The state’s restraining order against religion has been stitched into the fabric of French society: laïcité dates back to a 1905 law that aimed to eliminate the influence of the Catholic church on politics, putting one last nail in the theocratical coffin. France guarantees freedom of religion, but institutions of the state — such as public schools — must be religiously neutral.

As a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Lyon, I have begun to understand what the French mean when they claim that “la république est laïque.” When students and faculty pass through the school’s gates, their religious, political, and philosophical beliefs are subordinated to their national identity. The majority of my school’s students are Muslim. Still, there are no prayer rooms, no affinity groups, and no Halal meals. If there were a Pledge of Allegiance, there would certainly be no mentions of God. All instances of proselytizing, prayer, and, as of 2004, religious signage and clothing are documented and potentially sanctioned.

It is a jarring departure from a country whose citizens wear their religion on their sleeves. In the United States, refusing to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act. Americans understand liberty as the freedom to pray, assemble, and profess religious beliefs — whereas France conceptualizes this same liberty as the freedom from religion and the divisions it may sow.

Like most legislation, laïcité began with good intentions: places of learning will transcend religious dogma! Students won’t be discriminated against for their beliefs! But it has expanded its reach to contract around the lives it aimed to liberate.

One day, our school has a fire drill. I watch as hundreds of students flood out the gates and dozens of girls wrap their hijabs as though they’ve been caught in winter without a coat. They do this even though we will only wait outside for a few minutes, even though they will inevitably be forced to remove them again.

Until 2004, religious clothing and symbols were not deemed incompatible with secularism. Yet laïcité gained renewed prominence with the increase of the country’s Muslim population. France’s decolonization of Northern African countries in the 1960s precipitated a wave of Muslim labor migrants throughout the late twentieth century. While the French government treated these populations as unassimilable and temporary, many migrants never left, giving rise to new generations of French-born Muslims.

France now hosts the largest Muslim population in Europe, half of whom are born or naturalized French citizens. Most of these families live, work, and attend school on the outskirts of French cities. These banlieues — a pejorative term for immigrant neighborhoods — are marked by their looming brutalist structures, a sharp contrast from the cobblestone streets and Gothic Cathedrals of city centers. Originally conceived as a haven for workers in postwar France, these neighborhoods have only isolated and impoverished Muslims and other minority populations.

When I told my host family I’d be teaching at the Lycée Robert Doisneau, located in Lyon’s largest immigrant neighborhood, Vaulx-en-Velin, they reacted with sympathy, vaguely alluding to behavioral issues. Others were more direct: “But that’s where all the Arabs live!”

A quick scan of an average classroom in my high school reveals a desk carved with the epithet “1, 2, 3, viva l’Algérie!” and a heater marked by the word “TUNISIE.” My students are quick to remind me they are already bilingual (many speak both French and Arabic) and eager to ask me what I know about Ramadan. They are the second and third generations French conservatives are so afraid of — the families who not only stayed in France but failed to sacrifice their religious and cultural heritage for the republic.

In response, France’s once enlightened secularism has been manipulated to drag its Muslim population down the long path of cultural assimilation. Anxieties about Islam overtaking French culture, a rising climate of xenophobia, and acts of terrorism in the early 2000s have led the state to encroach more and more flagrantly into the private sphere of its Muslim citizens. The banning of “conspicuous” religious symbols in 2004 represented the first major effort to strip Muslims of their religious identity and reassert the power of the French government. While the ban applies to other religious symbols, its real target is Muslim women. (The government banned “oversize” Christian crosses but continued to permit the more popular cross necklace.)

Over the last two decades, the state has attempted to regulate what Muslims wear to the beach, what they eat, and how they educate their children. In 2020, French president Emmanuel Macron proposed “French Islam,” a practice of faith managed by the state, failing to recognize the irony of a government-run religion in a secular republic. These policies suggest the French government cannot distinguish between the mundane behaviors that make up a diverse state and the separatism that might lead to extremism.

When I led an “invent your own country” activity with my students, they dreamed up places like “Algesie,” a hybrid of Algeria and Tunisia where citizens are allowed to pray in public, celebrate both Eid and Bastille Day, and speak French, Arabic, and English. They invented countries where they could shamelessly express who they are, not obligated to leave important pieces of their identity at the school’s gates.

In one class of sophomores, I pursued a yearlong yearbook project. When we voted on a theme, “Origins” won by a landslide. My students discussed their Algerian, Italian, Tunisian, Congolese, Moroccan, German, and Angolan roots, but they also highlighted their shared French identity. They are proof that pride in your home and your origins are not mutually exclusive; in fact, it is evidence of a healthy multicultural democracy. Even as the far-right party of Marine Le Pen promulgates claims of Islamic extremism and radicalization, the Center for the Study of Conflict in Paris found “massive adherence of French Muslims to the Republic,” its values, and its institutions.

When I accompanied one of my classes on a field trip, several female students did not join because they did not want to be seen in public without their hijabs. My colleagues, accustomed to these daily injustices, shrugged off their absence. Although the ban claims to liberate Muslim girls from the influence of family and community, it effectively restricts their movement, banning Muslim women from public spaces. Another day, I announced that it was time to take portraits for our yearbook. The students who wear a hijab initially refused to be photographed, but when I told them they could wear their headscarves, they reacted with excitement. I was struck by how rarely they get to decide how they are represented.

Many of the female students at my school wear an abaya — a floor-length, loose-fitting, traditionally Muslim dress. It is not unlike a long-sleeved maxi dress. Yet because the abaya is worn by Muslim women, the French Ministry of Education has begun investigating whether it violates the principles of laïcité. Regulation of dress would not be unprecedented: in 2015, a Muslim student was kicked out of class because a teacher deemed her long skirt too religious. This raises the question of whether the ban really aims to regulate religious symbols or if it will be repeatedly reinterpreted to force Muslim students into conformity and assimilation.

There is still no evidence that wearing a religious sign constitutes a threat to public order, and the French government has failed to demonstrate the positive effects of the ban. Still, the country stubbornly insists on assimilation, squeezing every French citizen into its framework of “republican values.” Chief among these is universalism: a belief that one’s Frenchness supersedes one’s class, gender, race, and religion. To the French, Americans’ obsession with hyphenated identities — African American, Asian American, Arab American, and so on — only further divides our citizenry along racial and religious lines. America’s fixation on race and ethnicity in politics, referred to in French as wokisme, is labeled as regressive, a serious threat to democracy and fuel for racial strife.

The French take pride in having a government that does not recognize racial or ethnic distinctions, but proclaiming equality does not ensure it. Instead, it allows the state to continue overlooking institutional discrimination. It enables the advancement of harmful legislation, like the hijab ban, without reckoning with its repercussions.

France does not collect census data on race or religion, so the country is not held accountable for economic, educational, and employment disparities between different populations. It does not have to reckon with the fact that 42 percent of Muslims report having experienced discrimination due to their religion, a number that increases to 60 percent among women who wear a headscarf.

Before becoming an English teaching assistant, I idealized France as a more sophisticated, more progressive version of the United States. In many aspects, I wasn’t mistaken. Even as an American living in France, I enjoyed access to the country’s affordable single-payer health care, and my friends pursuing master’s degrees did not have to budget more than $400 for their tuition. While access to an abortion in the United States depends on what state you live in, French lawmakers have made strides to enshrine reproductive rights in France’s constitution.

Yet while France has proved ahead of its time on several issues, these cultural scripts have allowed the international community to turn a blind eye to how France treats its Muslim population. If the country wants to maintain its status as a multicultural democracy, it must reevaluate whether laïcité and the limitations it enforces work for all French citizens, not just the white bourgeois.

The hijab and other religious symbols that do not disrupt class should be allowed in school, and the 2004 ban should be abolished. Only then will the young women at the Lycée Robert Doisneau, forced to remove their hijabs every day before crossing the school’s gates, be able to participate fully in their own education. Only then will they become full citizens of the French Republic.