Islamic Veil Debate in France: Minister Calls on Students to Dress ‘in a Republican Way’

By Fayçal Benhassain | September 23, 2020 | 7:42pm EDT
French student union leader Maryam Pougetoux.  (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
French student union leader Maryam Pougetoux. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Paris ( – A long running debate in France over the wearing of religious garb – especially traditional Muslim headwear for women – has been reignited by several recent incidents, prompting the country’s education minister to urge students to dress “in a republican way” at high school or college.

Jean-Michel Blanquer was responding to a television interviewer’s question about appropriate dress for schools, although the incident that brought the issue back into the spotlight involved a visit by a hijab-wearing Muslim student to parliament last week.

Maryam Pougetoux, a 21-year-old student and vice-president of the UNEF student trade union, had been invited to address lawmakers about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people, but her wearing of a veil sparked dismay in some quarters, with several lawmakers – representing both the Republican party and President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic in Motion party – walking out, saying that the French principle of secularism (“laicite”) must be respected in the public space.

Blanquer’s comments attracted ridicule on social media, with critics wondering what it meant to dress “in a republican way.”

A 2004 law prohibits the wearing of visible religious symbols by pupils in public high schools and colleges. Another law, passed in 2010, prohibits the wearing in public of any headgear that hides the face, which includes the niqab (it covers the face but not the eyes) and the burqa (a full body covering, with even the eyes veiled behind a mesh fabric). It does not apply to the hijab or headscarf, which covers the hair but not the face. Public places are defined to include schools, libraries, museums, hospitals, courts, and government administration buildings.

Anne-Catherine Lang, a member of  Republic in Motion, tweeted after walking out, “I cannot accept that a person comes to participate in our work in the National Assembly in a hijab, which remains for me a mark of submission” and “incompatible with my values.” Others who walked out accused Pougetoux of a “deliberate communitarian act” and of violating “the principle of secularism to which our assembly must adhere.”

Those defending Pougetoux’s decision to wear a hijab in parliament said that as a guest, she was free to do so.

“Everyone is free to dress as they wish,” the minister for gender equality and diversity, Elisabeth Moreno, said on Monday, reflecting differences within the cabinet over the issue.

“The law does say which kind of outfit one must wear in the House, that’s quite clear,” said Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the leftist Rebellious France party. “The lower House regulations do not prohibit the wearing of a veil.”

Some lawmakers pointed out that past visitors have included a rabbi, Buddhist monk and Catholic priest, all wearing religious garb.

Nicolas Cadène from the Secularism Observatory, a consultative commission that promotes the respect of secularism, sided with Pougetoux, saying that “like any religious symbol, the veil is only prohibited for those who perform a public service mission, because they have a duty of neutrality.”

Another recent incident fueling the debate was a social media spat sparked by the appearance of a headscarf-wearing young Muslim woman on television, promoting food recipes.

The incidents come at a time when Macron has been planning to deliver a speech about “separatism” and give outlines of legislation to deal with the question. Commentators expect that it will include measures relating to dress codes in public spaces.

Macron recently postponed the speech until next month, again reflecting sensitivities in government and between political parties over the issue.

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