France adamant about separating state and Islam

Islamic women protest in France
Islamic women protest in France

Riots over a full-face Islamic veil, a woman losing her unborn baby in another similar confrontation and tensions flaring over a supermarket chain’s ad for the end-of-day feast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, are almost a daily staple for France.

France’s enforcement of its prized secularism is inscribed in law, most recently in a ban on wearing full-face veils in public. The policy instead may be fueling a rising tide of Islamophobia and driving a wedge between some Muslims and the rest of the population.

Yet ardent defenders of secularism, the product of France’s separation of church and state, say the country hasn’t gone far enough, AP reported.

They want to continue the cause of Voltaire helped and Victor Hugo, with a law targeting headscarves in the work place. Political pressure from a resurgent far-right has increased the tension.

A new generation of French Muslims — which at some 5 million, or about eight percent of the population, is the largest in Western Europe —  are defending mosques, halal food and Muslim religious dress.

Women who wear Muslim apparel “are no longer safe,” said a 26-year-old mother of three living in Trappes, a town south of Paris known for its large immigrant population.

Women wearing Muslim headscarves, suffered three attacks in Reims and three more in Orleans. Investigations and court cases are underway.

Police clashed last week with crowds protesting the arrest of a man who allegedly attacked an officer after his wife was ticketed for veiling her face in public. Dozens of cars were set afire in two nights of unrest in Trappes and an adjoining town. A 14-year-old boy suffered an eye injury.

Weeks earlier, a man allegedly assaulted a pregnant woman and ripped off her veil— one of two separately accosted in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil. She lost her baby days later, although the link with the incident remains unclear.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls insisted that Islam and the French Republic are compatible and denounced “a rise of violence against the Muslims of France.” At a dinner celebrating the end of Ramadan at the Grand Mosque of Paris, he denounced “those who want to make France a land of conquest.”

People told a veiled woman who is of Algerian origin, “If you’re not happy, leave, go home,” she said. But, she pointed out, she was born in France.

Most French people are Catholic, but church attendance has been in decline for decades and secular ideals run deep. With the growth of France’s Muslim population, lawmakers have increasingly turned to legislation to try to stifle public displays of Islamic faith.

In 2004, a law banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools, a measure clearly directed at Islamic headscarves. It has been enforced without resistance.

A two-year-old law banning burqa-style veils from the streets of France has met with more outcry, even though only some 2,000 Muslim women cover their faces. Most Muslim women in France wear neither, as Islam does not Islam does not require face veils or covered head

A report by the Observatory of Secularism, created in 2013 by President Francois Hollande, revealed that a handful of the 705 women stopped by police for covering their faces in public chalked up more than 10 tickets each – two of them more than 25 – suggesting that some are provoking authorities intentionally.

A local official in Nimes, posted on his Facebook account an ad by the Carrefour supermarket chain publicizing “oriental” dishes for the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan with the comment, “Our Republic, is it still secular? Everything is on the way out.” The post was hastily removed after an outcry from Muslims.

While several European countries embrace secular values, France has been at the forefront of enforcing them, with the separation of church and state enshrined in law since 1905.

“Laicite,” is the French word for secularism. Associations throughout France work to uphold it. Far-right groups use it as a mantra, and leftists embrace it as well. There is even a secularism prize.

Hicham Benaissa of the National Center for Scientific Research said today’s secularism “appears to be a sort of (protection) against the religious influence of Islam” when “its spirit is to protect the faiths.”

A pre-school has just fired a woman who refused to remove her headscarf. An appeals court ruling in March calling the firing illegal spurred a demand for laws protecting secularism in private companies that would govern, for instance, dress and schedule requirements for prayer time or religious holidays.

A resulting bill to regulate religion in companies, sponsored by the opposition conservatives, failed.

Another report, released in June by the Observatory, tried to tone down the controversy, suggesting that slights to secularism have been exaggerated and dialogue, not a new law, may solve problems.

Some Muslims believe they are being driven away from the mainstream, leading to the growth of private Muslim schools and propelling Muslims to open their own businesses.

The law and the media “with their constant finger-pointing at Muslims are the reason the French population has become aggressive,” one woman said. Because of her robes, she sells cosmetics from her home. “I myself couldn’t apply for a job in an office.”