By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Image: VOA (Link)
On March 30, 2021, the French Senate voted in favour of two amendments that target Muslim girls and women, as a part of its bill dubbed the ‘anti-separatism bill’ by the media. The first amendment prohibits minors from “wearing “signs or clothing in public spaces that ostensibly manifest a religious affiliation” or “that would signify the inferiority of women to men;” the second amendment rules that mothers wearing hijab cannot accompany their children on school field trips.  Although President Emmanuel Macron and his government have tried to justify the amendments and the bill at large on the pretext of rising extremism and the crackdown on hate speech, it has been met with backlash from around the world and attracted plenty of controversy for being Islamophobic. 
The French government runs on the principal of laïcité, which loosely translates to secularism or separation of religion and the state, that is, the state’s neutrality towards religion. After a series of attacks last year, Macron contended that “Islamist separatism” is a threat to France’s republican values and underscores the country’s laïcité. The anti-separatism bill introduced by Macron’s party has many problematic articles, including Article 6 which requires organisations applying for grants with the government to sign a contract indicating “republican commitment”, a highly malleable term that can be used according to the whims of the authorities with no safeguards from potential abuse. The bill also gives the government power to regulate home-schooling, foreign funding of religious organisations and prohibits prayers in universities. 
While Macron’s government insists that the anti-separatism bill builds on the foundations of laïcité and does not explicitly mention Islam, it harms the religious freedoms of Muslims and breaches their freedom of expression. Although it is being touted as a “bill of freedom, protection and emancipation” , the message it strongly sends that the French state will preach secularism but not allow its citizens, especially Muslim women, to practice all parts of their religion. In response to the opposition to the bill, in March, a series of tweets by the Inter-ministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalisation claimed that Islamophobia was a term used by radical Islamists to propagate a myth of anti-Muslim discrimination and used to justify terrorism. It ominously tweeted that “Muslims must be able to live their faith and worship freely in accordance with the laws and values of the Republic”, confirming that the agenda of the French state is to alienate and assimilate Muslims while interfering with their rights and beliefs. 
For many Muslims, the fear is that the bill and its amendments will have the opposite effect of what they intend. The niqab and hijab ban has heavy western-saviour undertones and contributes to the infantilisation of Muslim women, painting them as oppressed individuals in need of saving. The unveiling of Muslim women has become a preserve of largely white male politicians in an attack on the former’s bodily autonomy with heavy colonial and imperial subtext.  While the government thinks it is doing Muslim women a favour by liberating them from wearing face-coverings, it is actually policing women’s bodies into what they can and cannot wear in public and discarding their agency and right to choose. Moreover, the ban can end up confining women to their houses, effectively pushing them out of public life, rather than “liberating them” as more and more public spaces place restrictions on Muslim women’s attire. Ultimately, “the Macron government and the extreme right are using references to ‘secularism’ to justify state infringements on the democratic rights of the Muslim population.” 
France’s Islamophobic policies date back to its colonisation period when Emperor Napoleon III decreed that Algerians would be granted French citizenship only if they renounced their Muslim identities. Similarly, during the late 1800s, in order to consolidate French rule in the Algerian colony, assimilation policies were implemented to create a ‘French Islam’. The concept of laïcité did not apply to the colony while it was heavily promoted in the mainland.  Evidently, France has not learnt from its history and continues to design and implement discriminatory and exclusionary policies that target its 5.7 million Muslim population. It is business as usual since 1800s, just like Algerians wouldn’t be considered citizens unless they shed their Muslim identity, today the loud and clear message is that Muslim women, in particular, will be treated as second class citizens unless they comply with France’s version of laïcité and diluted Islam.
In the words of a researcher from Amnesty International, “time and again we have seen the French authorities use the vague and ill-defined concept of ‘radicalization’ or ‘radical Islam’ to justify the imposition of measures without valid grounds, which risks leading to discrimination in its application against Muslims and other minority groups.”  France is one of the only countries in Europe that does not politically or legally recognise minorities and has not signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.  Therefore, not only does it refuse to grant minorities (such as the Muslim community) specific legal protection, but also does it refuse to acknowledge that its governance can hurt its minorities. During his speech in October, Macron proclaimed that the strength of the republic is that France is “not the agglomerate of communities but a national community” – a statement which sums up his government’s refusal to recognise religious plurality in a country as diverse as France. 
If the bill is ratified by the parliament (which is very likely given the conservative right-leaning nature of it), it would be another restriction to Muslim women’s freedom in the country and further legalisation of Islamophobia.  Furthermore, the bill is a violation of basic human rights and an attack on the civil liberties of the French Muslims as the state gains increasing power to regulate aspects of their lives from schooling to praying. It is also fundamentally anti-constitutional as it goes against Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and the French Constitution which all guarantee the freedom to manifest one’s religious belief in both public and private spaces.  Finally, the bill is also effectively neo-colonialism at play as it pushes Muslim women in particular to the margins of society but forcing them to surrender aspects of their religious practice and assimilate into the acceptable French standard of Islam.
This is also fundamentally antithetical to France’s feminist foreign policy because the latter cannot be paraded in terms of feminist diplomacy or feminist international aid alone. A state’s feminist foreign policy cannot cherry-pick the palatable and glossy parts of feminist foreign policy and use it as a smokescreen to cover up its discriminatory policies at home or use it to avoid doing the difficult and dirty work of recognising historical wrongdoings and holding itself accountable. A feminist foreign policy, at the bare minimum, would recognise the lasting colonial trauma and its continuing influence today not just outside its borders, but within them too. A truly intersectional feminist foreign policy is one that centres the marginalised, not one that imposes the tyranny of the majority on them.
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