The French government’s counter-extremism efforts are worsening the stigmatisation of its Muslim citizens. Meanwhile, journalists and politicians are embroiled in another headscarf debacle. But the story starts some time before a far-right politician orders a woman to take off her veil on a school trip. 

Fatima had not planned to be at the council meeting in Dijon that Friday. She was packing boxes for a house move and her four-year old girl kept her busy enough on a normal day. But her son really wanted her to attend the school trip and his teacher had asked if she could make it, as no other parents were available. The museum visit was uneventful and the day was supposed to end with a visit to a public council meeting to discover the workings of a democratic assembly.

Instead, the visit plunged France into yet another headscarf controversy, as far-right parliamentarian Julien Odoul stood up in the chamber and called out:

“In the name of our republican and secular principles, I ask … to have the Islamic veil removed from the school counsellor present in the Chamber.”

Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) posted a video of his remarks online, in which he proclaimed that “women around the world fight against Islamic dictatorship” and that they could not “tolerate this Islamist provocation” after a police attack (referring to the murder of four policemen by a civilian colleague who investigators “believed had been radicalised”).

Odoul’s Twitter video

The video, which has already garnered millions of views, shows Fatima trying to comfort her crying son as the assembly descends into disarray. Other members of the assembly, including the president, objected to the request. The far-right politicians, who belong to the RN, stormed out. In an interview with the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), Fatima said she tried to stay calm for the children, who were distressed, but that when her son began crying she could not remain any longer.

“I did not want to break down in front of the children, so I left”.

Odoul’s experience has once again divided France’s politicians and media. While the country has a long history of political controversies surrounding the headscarf, resulting in a 2004 legal ban on wearing it in classrooms and government offices, it has not (yet) been banned in public spaces.

Over the past few years, there has been regular controversy surrounding university students, burkinis and sports hijab. Some politicians want to extend the clothing restrictions currently applied to teachers and students to parents who sign up for class trips.

Despite this, several government ministers and media personalities took Odoul’s side in the recent debacle. Deputy editor of French newspaper Le Figaro, Yves Threard, staunchly supported Odoul’s statement, saying he was totally against the headscarf being worn in public spaces, and that Islamophobia didn’t exist. He claimed that he gets off the bus if he sees a veiled woman on it.  Another journalist suggested that the veil could be considered a “political sign” similar to the Nazi SS uniform. Both comments generated complaints and they later said they had misspoken.

Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister for Education, condemned Odoul too. However, he added:

“The headscarf is not encouraged in our society… it is not forbidden but it should not be encouraged.” 

Others have criticised Odoul openly, such as Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye, who said having such mothers take part in outings was “positive”. As a mother in a high-immigrant Parisian suburb, she said: “The outings I took part in were always a rather positive moment because women like me and women with headscarves who don’t necessarily live in the same worlds, can come together and exchange.”

There has also been pushback to his comments from academics, artists, film directors, actors and journalists. In an open letter published on Tuesday in the Le Monde, 90 people – including actor Omar Sy and journalist Alain Gresh – called on Macron to condemn the RN politician. The letter stressed that it was unacceptable for people to be subjected to insults and racism due to their religious affiliation, calling on the President to take action against the lawmaker’s controversial act.

The letter also stated that the far right in France had turned hate towards Muslims into a propaganda tool and that both on the right and the left of the political spectrum, France’s secular values – laicité – was used discriminate against Muslim women. 

A protest was organised on Saturday against the discrimination Muslim women face in France.

According to the letter, Blanquer’s past remarks on headscarves proved there was discrimination by top-level state figures. The headscarf debate occurs regularly in France and is often intertwined with discussions around counter-radicalisation efforts. The 2015 terror attacks in Paris led to a nationwide state of emergency which then led to more powerful counter-terrorism laws. While drastic measures were widely seen as necessary to roll up the extremist networks responsible for the wave of attacks, it soon became clear that terrorism suspects were not the only ones being targeted. By mid-2016, nearly 3,600 warrantless raids had been carried out across the country. Only six resulted in terrorism charges. 

On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron said France must develop a “society of vigilance” in its fight against the “Hydra” of Islamist militancy, as he paid homage to the victims. Interior minister Christophe Castaner followed this by calling for immediate reporting of any individuals showing “signs of radicalisation”. This included wearing a beard, converting to Islam, praying regularly and wearing a headscarf.

The hashtag #SignalleTonMusulman (‘report your Muslim’) immediately went viral, as many pointed out these were just banal Muslim behaviours and warned against the stigmatisation of a community already under attack.

Excel sheet received by professor showing potential signs of radicalisation

One professor at the University of Cergy took to Twitter to show the Excel sheet he was expected to use, which asked him to identify “weak signals” of radicalisation through student behaviours, which included not drinking alcohol or eating pork anymore, being absent during prayer times and starting to eat halal (forbidden) foods.

“With this political agenda of “fighting radicalisation”, the police  is reducing its chances of finding terrorists because it is too busy looking for Muslims. Result: Increasing risk of attack and structural legitimising of Islamophobia” 

– Marwan Muhammad, former head of the CCIF, tweeted on Oct 9.

France is not the only country to struggle with creating a coherent and effective counter-extremism strategy. Echoes of policies that identify Muslims rather than radical extremists can be seen in both the US and the UK. This strategy, and the climate of fear, is helping the far-right’s efforts to place Muslims as the ‘enemy within’ or a ‘fifth column’ within the mainstream, as well as enabling people like Odoul to humiliate a Muslim mother on a school trip. Macron warned on Wednesday – a day after his speech on Islamists – against “stigmatising” Muslims or linking the Islamic religion with the fight against terrorism. One can only hope action will follow his words.