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French Senate Voted To Ban The Hijab For Minors In A Plea By The Conservative Right

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The French Senate has passed a measure that would ban anyone under the age of 18 from wearing a hijab in public. This is an amendment to a law that the government introduced to address religious extremism. Another amendment would ban the body-covering swimsuit known as the burqini at public pools and beaches. While these are unlikely to become law, they continue a debate among French lawmakers over Muslim clothing. And we're joined by NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris to discuss it. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What are these measures that the Senate has passed?

BEARDSLEY: Well, as you said, the most controversial one would prohibit anyone - a minor - under 18, from wearing the Muslim veil in public. And actually, today some senators proposed another amendment in that same vein that the headscarf would not be allowed in national sports competitions, especially televised ones. You know, these are amendments to a larger French bill. And I've spoken with experts. They have no chance of becoming law. I mean, they would have to be passed by the lower house of Parliament, which has already said it's against them. And even if they did pass, the country's constitutional council would likely strike them down so that they don't have a chance of becoming law.

SHAPIRO: But they tap into a larger debate in France. Explain why conservative lawmakers are introducing these measures if they don't have a chance of becoming policy.

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, this is all about next year's presidential election. And these amendments were all proposed by France's mainstream conservative party, which is really just limping along a shadow of its former self. It's been cannibalized from the left and from the right. It's especially lost voters to Marine Le Pen's far-right party. And I spoke to political scientist Jean-Yves Camus. And here's what he said about it.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS: The conservative right sees that some of their previous voters have switched to the far right, so they try to win back those voters. If they want to win back those votes, they have to propose legislation that is at least as xenophobic.

SHAPIRO: How do Muslim people in France feel about being caught in the middle of this political tug-of-war?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Muslims feel stigmatized. You know, the law - the main law - it was proposed last fall after a French middle school teacher was beheaded by an Islamist radical because he had showed pictures of the Prophet Muhammad in his class. You know, Muslims were very horrified by that. And the government, they feel that the government, instead of bringing everyone together, has sort of singled them out. This law is being called the law to reinforce French values and principles. At first, they had called it the law against Islamist separatism because the government said radical Islam comes from separatist Islam. And it talked about, you know, clandestine schools where little girls are wearing the veil and the sexes are separated instead of gender equality.

So Macron spoke about parallel societies being developed that would destroy the republic, and this law was to fight that. Muslims say they do adhere to French values. They are French. And France is a secular country. It's to allow everyone to practice their religion equally. They say it's being warped, even weaponized, to sort of ban religion, especially Islam, which is more visible than other religions because of things like the headscarf. I spoke to Rim Sarah Alouan. She's a researcher on religious freedom and civil liberties. And here's what she told me.

RIM SARAH ALOUAN: It's a battle for the next election, really. And what we are witnessing is what I called the weaponization of secularism. And with the election coming, of course, it's who is going to pander the most to the far right.

BEARDSLEY: So, you know, this law has a lot of critics. Even Catholic and Jewish leaders have spoken out to warn against it. Many say it's not about extremism, but it's against religion. Nonetheless, it's expected to pass.

SHAPIRO: Eleanor Beardsley, thank you very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.