France: Individual liberties for all but Muslims

France’s obsession with Muslims contradicts its defence of individual liberties
8 min read

Mariya bint Rehan

15 September, 2023
Macron’s government continues to shift further right, forcing Muslims to pay the price. But the disproportionate attacks on the minority group reinforce the contradictions of France's secularism & defence of individual liberties, writes Mariya B.R.
Woman holds placard that reads 'If I'm bothering you, I invite you to leave this country' during protest in Paris in 2019 after a far-right politician asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to remove her headscarf. [GETTY]

As France continues to expose its bigotry and short-sightedness on the world stage, it leaves many of us asking how a country which prides itself on those now often ironically stated words, liberté, égalité, fraternité, has fallen so far short of that tripartite.

The birth place of the modern secular republic, France’s evident discomfort in using its blood stained freedoms to protect religious rites, when it was religion it fought to bear them, has led to a gross and menacing caricature of a liberal democracy.

Bolstered by its clearly racialised view of religion, it enacts an increasingly draconian set of policy measures in the name of secularism, or laïcité. The crafting and application of those policies solely targeting the 8.8% of its population which is of Muslim origin, the majority of whom are brown or black, bears all the hallmarks of racist policy making.

Pandering to the right

Most recently, the French government has outdone itself with the announcement of an ‘uncompromising’ ban on the ‘abaya’  - a traditionally female Muslim dress which is a loose, long garment often worn for the purpose of modesty – in schools.  French Education Minister Gabriel Attal made the senseless announcement just a week ahead of the beginning of the new school year.

The brazen nature of such a policy, which Attal stated was to defend from “an infringement on secularism”, solemnly accusing some students of using the attire to try to "destabilise" schools,  so clearly targets a sizeable yet increasingly vulnerable proportion of its own citizens, that it has raised many questions about modern notions of citizenship, liberalism and the lines between secularism in the West and tyranny and subjugation.

If, even in the name of secularism, those caught on the sharp and punitive end of your policy making  are a religious minority increasingly marginalised by a wider policy agenda, which renders them socio-economically vulnerable, then perhaps some self-reflection is warranted. Perhaps France’s resistance to faith is both fuelled by, and fuelling, an ever worsening bigotry. And perhaps a history of secularism shouldn’t mean a blind commitment to it, foregoing all logic and reason.

Deemed by many as an attempt to pander to the right, following last year’s narrow defeat for President Emmanuel Macron and his La République En Marche (LREM) party against Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the abaya ban is the latest in a long line of decisions made by France’s supposedly centrist Government. This puts it in line with other Europeans governments that appear to define their traditionalist values in opposition to a supposed threat of Muslims and who use Islam to distract from domestic issues.

It exposes a single layer of irony in what is an onion of paradoxes in France’s approach – claiming it is acting principally to defend secularism, while pandering to the right and relying on jingoism, national mythology and reactionary policy making. It falls back on paternalistic attitudes towards Muslims to justify its dividing and subjugating treatment of them. Effectively, it uses the supposed glory of its colonial past as a crutch for defining and defending French national identity with an illogical rigour – if anything underscoring the need to reevaluate those principles in light of that very history.

Obsession with Muslims

France’s obsession with its racial minority was crystalised into the laïcité endeavour in 1989, beginning and continuing with the ostensible idea of religious visibility as synonymous with French-minority visibility. Tellingly, this debate began with the hijab, with laws passed in 2004 to ban conspicuous symbols of religion in state schools – again centring on and disproportionately affecting the hijab. This progressed in 2010 to the niqab being banned, in 2016 it was the burkini, and in 2022 a ban on the use of hijabs in competitive sports was added to this list of Muslim coded symbols of religiosity singled out by this apparent broad stroke against religion.

While it is becoming gradually more evident that the invisibility of religious symbols for France’s growing right-wing electorate is the desired equivalent of an invisible minority population, these efforts are aimed squarely at Muslim women who France wants to simultaneously see more and less of.

This desire to undress Muslim women has reached dangerous levels with this latest focus on abaya in schools. For a country which prides itself on individual liberty, it is pushing a very singular and increasingly narrow idea of it.

While the French government has been unwavering in their commitment towards the ban, they have struggled to meaningfully define how this might be enacted. Ahead of French schools opening, a French head teacher was interviewed saying the new policy would be policed by looking at who was wearing the now contraband item of clothing – to identify if they were Arab. This slip of the mask exposed the racial overtones of the debate in France – those of Muslim origin are denied the liberty of covering their bodies, and Muslim women’s bodies must be available to the state and for public consumption, against their will.

Furthermore, given the age of those targeted, state sanctioned child abuse is at this point unquestionable. Any other language or value system which propagated such an act would be exposed as such.

A question of power

As schools in France reopened last week, head teachers were seen in the undignified act of policing the ban on long, loose dress for both young men and women. The irony of course being that the head teacher in question, a white French lady, does so while herself wearing a long and loose garment; exposing the brazen hypocrisy of this latest effort to criminalise Muslims.

With Macron stating there will be an ‘educative’ element to the enactment of this ban, and with young Muslims reporting being separated and questioned on the issue on their first day back, the policy is unsurprisingly taking on more sinister hues as it is developed and actualised.

So far, one school went on strike against the Islamophobic policy.

What is worrying about France’s increasing turn towards a frenzied secularism at the expense of the freedoms and rights of nearly 9% of its own population, is most exemplified in this recent policy turn. By taking what they purport to be a general and universal principal about secularism, France has exposed and weaponised its racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia and twisted it into a policy which is cruel in both its focus on Muslims and its pedantry.

The abaya, and indeed arguably the hijab, are not symbols of faith. They are practical tools by which Muslim women live their lives on their own terms. This rabid obsession with visibility of faith conveniently overlooks what the abaya will mean for so many young women for whom it provides a sense of dignity. The French government is able to show its flippancy and discord towards the hijab, niqab and abaya, precisely because it means so much to those that cherish it as part of their identity, while it means very little to the French government. It is power pay of the most vile order.

The conspicuous use of the term abaya here means it acts directly as both a filtering mechanism for Muslims and is nebulous enough to penalise against a whole host of clothing worn by Muslims, creating a wide Muslim-only net. Already we are seeing linguistic acrobatics in how the colour, shape and size of what young Muslim girls are wearing is being criminalised – outside of even their own definition of abaya.

That we have reached a stage where a country which prides itself on being the world’s strongest and most symbolic democracies is policing the detail of young girls clothing – citing potential destabilisation as the cause – is beyond parody and a stain on their already indelibly tarnished history.

And while long loose dresses are perfectly acceptable to French society when they are worn for other forms of preference, by white-French demographics, it speaks of a total disregard for the lives and beliefs of French Muslims. It renders their bodies as mere objects for control by the state, and their minds as irrelevant and negligible, despite this being part of a broader narrative which claims it is done to empower them.

And so the intellectual cannibalism continues. France imposes this dogma, in an apparent quest to end religious dogma; a fight for individual liberty, while removing those liberties; advocating for a secular humanism of fairness and equality, which is devoid of humanity, and which single-mindedly compromises on those very values of fairness and equality.

France advocates a kind of self-worship in the singularity of its approach, and a loyalty to this rigid value system, while showing contempt for religion. The abaya ban tells a story of a country that is feasting off its supposedly illustrious past, both in policy and its fashioning of its national mythology, while renouncing its responsibility to end and rectify its historic crimes. Not to mention, neglecting its duty to move forward into a future which acknowledges a pluralism it is too arrogant to see. This is a French tragedy at the expense of its very children.

Mariya bint Rehan is a writer and illustrator from London, with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally. 

Follow her on Twitter: @ummkhadijah13  

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.