France’s Crackdown on Islamic Dress in Schools Is a Crude Attack on Muslims

France’s education minister has banned girls in public schools from wearing the abaya, a loose-fitting Islamic dress. Emmanuel Macron’s government is whipping up conflict over identity — but ignoring the real problems that face France’s underfunded classrooms.

A rally to protest against the government's abaya dress ban in schools in the suburbs of Paris, France, on September 6, 2023. (Mohamad Salaheldin Abdelg Alsayed / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

French public school students are no longer allowed to wear an abaya, a loose-fitting dress popular in Arab and Muslim communities. “When you enter a classroom, you should not be able to identify the religion of students by looking at them,” education minister Gabriel Attal told broadcaster TF1 on August 27.

The ministerial order draws on France’s infamous 2004 law outlawing “conspicuous” religious symbols such as the Islamic veil, large and visible Christian crosses, and kippahs from state schools. The abaya dress now counts as one such violation of “laïcité,” the country’s variant of secularism that professes to maintain the neutrality of public institutions relative to religion.

Coming on the cusp of France’s ceremonious back-to-school season, Attal’s announcement was perfectly timed to capture the news cycle, in the way that only sallies over the country’s ever-controversial “Muslim question” seem primed for. Talk shows took to analyzing the supposed prudery of a subset of French school girls. Media set about reporting on figures that upward of three hundred students attended the first day of school dawning an abaya, sixty-seven of whom purportedly refused to change outfits. Camped outside school gates, television crews stood by dutifully for the latest scoop from school administrators.

The abaya affair divided along well-trodden partisan lines. For the right-wing opposition, the decision from Emmanuel Macron’s government to outlaw the garment was heralded as a necessary if belated step toward stemming the supposedly creeping advance of Islamism in the school system — an evergreen anxiety for much of the political class since the 1990s.

“I have a hard time being enthusiastic about the enactment of a measure that in reality should have been in place from the enactment of the 2004 law,” Marine Le Pen said in her inaugural speech of the political season on September 10, calling for a “real return of authority in schools, safeguarding them from any and all communitarian predation.”

“It’s an opportune decision that we’ve been waiting for, and I welcome this step forward,” said Éric Ciotti, leader of the center-right Républicains. “We were in an unacceptable downward spiral.” With pro-Macron legislators short of a majority in the National Assembly, they are desperate to woo the support of Ciotti’s party.

Even critics I spoke to who lambasted the opportunistic timing of Attal’s decision, suggest that the decision was in conformity with the 2004 law. Pressure in favor of a blanket ruling also came from representatives of France’s school principals, who had previously made decisions over the abaya on a case-by-case basis: for one student, the logic went, an abaya could be considered pure stylistic flair, whereas for another it could banned if it appeared to represent a pre-meditated flouting of laïcité.

Teacher unions were more circumspect and insistent that the real risks to the public education system were elsewhere. “By specifically designating a particular outfit, the ministry is running the risk of creating a rift,” the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (UNSA) argued in a press release. “The minister’s announcement resolves nothing. It’s an act of political communication that does not reinforce the legislation or regulations. The mediatization and the instrumentalization of this subject could result in effects that are entirely opposite of what’s expected.”

It may well be that the 2004 law opens the way for this type of ban. But for critics that’s part of the broader slippage in laïcité — once a system for protecting individual religious liberty and the republican state from organized religion, but ever more a tool to harass France’s Muslim minority.

“The CFCM [French Muslim Council] does not necessarily call for the wearing of the abaya or any long dress,” this body commented in a September 4 press release. “However, we’re worried that we’re arriving at the ridiculous, unprecedented and shocking situation where in the same class, a long dress could be worn by a young girl because she is evidently ‘non-Muslim,’ while her classmate could be banned from wearing this same dress because a ‘certain context’ leads to the suspicion that she’s ‘Muslim.’” The CFCM’s stance is that the abaya is not religious attire.

On September 7, the State Council, France’s highest administrative court, struck down an appeal to the abaya ban filed by the collective Action Droits des Musulmans. Two further appeals for suspension, filed by student groups Le Poing Levé and La Voix Lycéenne and the SUD-Education teachers’ union, respectively, were argued before the State Council on September 19.

Cyber Violations?

This late-summer skirmish had been brewing for some time, in fact. Since the second half of last year, public attention has been intermittently in thrall to a new trend on social media platforms like TikTok whereby young women would share videos — often with a clear and risqué note of irony — about how to wear clothing like abayas to school or work, and avoid accusations of it being religious.

Pundits and politicians pointed to this epiphenomenon as a coordinated campaign to undermine secularism. That the statistics pointed to an uptick in violations of secularism rules — French schools can now bring in local laïcité commissars, tasked with handling breaches — seemed to confirm that something needed to be done to douse things. One educational ministry report even spoke of so-called “cyber-violations” of secularism, a vague and previously nonexistent notion that seemed to equate these tongue-and-cheek videos with assaults on the state.

It can be assumed that Attal’s order was made in close coordination with President Macron. France’s national education system is a political hot potato, the type of ministry assigned to an ambitious figure on the rise and over which a president will keep a close a eye. “Education is the special domain of the president,” Macron said in an interview with conservative weekly Le Point, days before his minister announced the ban.

In that regard, the abaya decision has Macron retreating from the more cautious position on laïcité that he seemed to favor before winning office. In a November 2016 video interview with Mediapart, held when Macron was still a long-shot candidate for the presidency, he warned against the dangerous instrumentalization of secularism, an implicit jab against a ruling Socialist Party that he had just abandoned and that was then under the heel of hard-line secularist pressure groups like Printemps Républicain. “Laïcité is about liberty,” Macron said. “Often in the debate we have about Islam, we confuse everything.”

Yet in his concerted effort to triangulate with the right-wing opposition, Macron has abandoned any claims to defend an originalist and strictly circumscribed secularism. In a September 4 interview with YouTuber Hugo Travers, Macron warned of “a minority of people who, twisting a religion, come to defy the Republic and laïcité.” Defending the abaya ban by conflating it with the shocking 2020 murder of Samuel Paty — a history teacher who had shown his class cartoons of Mohammed in a lesson on freedom of speech — the president argued that “we can’t act as if there had not been the terrorist attack and murder of Samuel Paty.”

Cheap Attack

The abaya affair amounts to a cheap insult. In this latest national scuffle over the dress habits of young women of color, Macron has again ceded to pressure from the Right and the broader campaign to split public debate over Islam. His previous education minister, the black historian Pap Ndiaye, had refused to endorse a blanket ban. (Ndiaye’s sacking in a cabinet reshuffle this summer was another olive branch to a right-wing opposition.)

The decision by his replacement, Attal, likewise comes after a summer in which state authorities were confronted with a broad revolt in the working class and multicultural banlieues, during the five days of rioting caused by the police killing of seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Justice minister Éric Dupond-Moretti promised a “rapid, firm and systematic” justice system response to this summer’s rioters, a triptych he nearly recycled in early September, calling for a “firm and systematic penal response” to violations of secularism. The kids need straightening out — there’s even vague talk of bringing back school uniforms.

The abaya ban is also cheap, in the most literal sense. The real threat to French education is from within, or rather from above — and ultimately has very little to do with the fashion tastes of a fringe minority. French education, from the elementary level up through high school and universities, faces a chronic crisis of underfunding and underinvestment.

School faculties are stretched thin and struggling to recruit and retain full-time teachers. Macron has kicked the can down the road on offering real salary increases and has instead opted for pairing wage bonuses with extracurricular work. Anyone genuinely interested in shoring up the “republican school” would look elsewhere than the attire worn by a fraction of the over ten million students enrolled.

“Paris is well worth a mass,” King Henry IV supposedly said, justifying his conversion to Catholicism to secure the throne of a France riven by religious war. And Macron, chasing an entente with the Right, or trying to keep the lid on a simmering public education crisis, seems to have decided that it’s all well worth banning an abaya.