A World to Win News Service

France and the Banning of Muslim Scarves: The Maoist Position

Revolutionary Worker #1234, March 28, 2004, posted at rwor.org

We received the following from A World to Win News Service.

March 8, 2004. A World to Win News Service . The French Senate moved just before International Women's Day to adopt a law forbidding young women and girls to wear Islamic hair coverings in school. (Very few Muslim women in France actually veil their faces.) While a great many radical and progressive French people oppose this law, others have been disoriented by the clash of two reactionary forces, the French state and the Islamic fundamentalists. This has fooled some French feminists and would-be progressive youth into siding with the government instead of trying to find ways to unite against the system with the extremely anti-status quo ghetto youth of Arab origin.

France is no different than any other "advanced" imperialist country in the sense that, despite legal equality, women are second-class in every statistic that reflects their real conditions (employment, income, childcare responsibilities, rape and other physical abuse, etc.), and especially in terms of their fulfillment as human beings. Further, it is a society where immigrant workers and especially Arabs are at the bottom of a very cruel, highly structured social pyramid. (France has by far the highest percentage of immigrants in Europe, with 7.5 percent of the country's population identified as Muslims. The majority are from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and other former French colonies in Arab-speaking North Africa. Others come from France's former black African colonies and Turkey.) They are no less subject to discrimination after two or three generations.

When the French state that governs this whole set-up declared it was going to pass this law to protect teenage girls of Arab origin from possible social pressure from their fathers and brothers, most of France's Muslim residents saw this as a deliberate, racist slap in the face. The shrillness of the official cries that "the Republic is in danger" because a few young women wear head scarves to school--and the fact that this law targets these young women, who are to be expelled and in practical terms forbidden an education--reveal that this is a manufactured "crisis" and a reactionary political maneuver. It goes along with recent laws increasing police powers and restricting the rights of those arrested, and vicious lawsuits against rap groups who dare to mock the police and government.

The following slightly abridged article from Haghighat , the publication of the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), explains the Maoist position: to expose the racist aims of this law, while also completely rejecting the veil or any practice whatsoever that reflects and reinforces the oppression of women. ( Haghighat is published in Koln, Germany, and London, UK-- RW.)


French President Jacques Chirac's proposed law to ban the wearing of Islamic head coverings in public schools has unleashed furious debate in Europe, especially among women. As a result of the political debate around this issue different, opposing and at times confused positions have been taken by those for this law and those against it as well.

The majority of the revolutionary and progressive forces in France and the world opposed this law and exposed its aims. Of course in the midst of all this, the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the most anti-women and medieval regime in the world, all of a sudden declared themselves defenders of the freedom of women to wear what they want, defenders of freedom of speech and opinion, and advocates of freedom of religion. They asked Chirac to shelve this law. These are the same men whose razor blades have slashed the faces of thousands of women for not complying with the Islamic veil or not wearing it "correctly." Their robes and turbans are also covered with the blood of thousands upon thousands of atheists and others killed for not believing in Islam.

Iranian women who have known religious rule first hand and suffered the enforced wearing of the veil understand why it is a symbol and tool of the enslavement of women and the total denial of their rights. The veil is a shackle around society's neck. Over the last 25 years in Iran it has played an important role in the suppression of women and the confinement of their rebellious spirit by the religious government as well as by men. One of the questions facing the women's movement in Iran is how to break free from this medieval shackle and how to break free from the religious state. These two questions are closely linked to the liberation of women--the political perspective and goals and forms of struggle women need to free themselves from male supremacy and free the world from oppression and exploitation.

After some debate and discussion within the French ruling class, finally last December 17 parliament was presented with a draft law to ban the wearing of all "conspicuous religious symbols" by students. Chirac declared, "The Republic considers schools sacred and they should be defended as places for learning by men and women equally. School is in no way the place to promote or refute any religion. Students, free as they are to perform their religious rites, may not use the schools as a place to practice them." Chirac said this law was based on the principles of laicism (separation of church and state) and the foundations of the French Republic. It was needed, he said, to guarantee France's unity and ensure social harmony. But even though this law also formally forbids the wearing of "large" Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes (skullcaps) in public schools, it is clear to all that its real target is Muslims and girls who wear Islamic scarves in school.

Chirac's proposal was accompanied by a major propaganda campaign in the French media. For a while various French TV channels became an arena of debate between supporters and opponents of this law. The media on the one hand would give the stage to women in veils opposing the law, while on the other hand would not allow progressive and feminist forces to become prominent in opposing this law.

The irony is that in the past few years the French government has given aid and support to the propagation of Islam among Arab youth in the ghettos around Paris. Some 1500 mosques and Islamic societies have opened in France. Despite the French state's claim to be laic, it provides 80 percent of the budget for the Catholic schools where two million study. In the past years, Jewish schools have also grown by 120 percent. (Private school is not an option for Muslims. There is only one Muslim school in all of France, which took eight years of negotiations with the government before it opened.) Of the two million girl students, only 1500 wear head coverings to school, according to the government report that was used to justify this law. That represents less than one percent of the 500,000 students from Muslim families.

For a searching mind, it doesn't take much to figure Chirac's proposed law has nothing to do with defending the rights of women and children, defending laicism or limiting the role of religion in French life, but everything to do with the political aims of the French state.

While the French state bans Islamic head coverings in its own schools, under the banner of cultural relativism it supports their wearing by women in Iran and Afghanistan. French soldiers in Afghanistan guarded the loya jirga (the U.S.-approved Islamic council that recently wrote an Islamic constitution) for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

It would be legitimate to oppose the law from the point of view of "freedom of clothing" alone, but that is not enough. In order to expose the hypocrisy of the French state, we need to take into account the political aims of this law and the particular current political situation. It can only be analyzed by examining the contradictions in French society and the class relations in France and the world in general.

France is an imperialist country. Its system is founded on the oppression and exploitation of the people of the world and France's proletariat. The denial of rights for immigrant workers and their intense exploitation is a prominent feature of French society. These immigrant workers, who are mainly from the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa, have played an important role in the French labor market ever since the Second World War. Until 30 years ago, these workers did not even have the right to bring their families to France. Like any other imperialist country, its relative stability and comfort is due to the plunder and exploitation of the oppressed peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The French ruling class has always looked down on women, and it has likewise long fomented chauvinism toward other nations and racist attitudes towards foreigners in hidden and open forms.

This law is part of an overall effort to unleash a repressive atmosphere in French society as a whole. Further, it targets a particular section of society, namely the lower layer of the working class, and immigrant workers in particular. For years the situation in French ghettos has been explosive. Periodically there are violent youth rebellions. The law against Islamic head coverings could be compared to the "war on drugs" unleashed against African-American youth in the U.S. during the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. It has nothing to do with laicism or equality between men and women. It is no coincidence that in this campaign the French bourgeoisie has mainly brought to the forefront fundamentalist religious elements and Arab intellectuals with reactionary ideas. They want to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand they want to make right-wing Islamic fundamentalists the spokesmen for the Arab masses, and on the other hand to influence the middle class in France into supporting this atmosphere of suppression and expand the social base of the right in France.

The head of international affairs for the president's UMP party laid out the aim of this law in a more clear and blatant manner than Chirac. He said, "At this time religious and ethnic minorities have become an obstacle to the unity of the French nation, and this does not correspond to the French national interests.... Our main challenge regarding this issue is to maintain the unity of French society."

This "national unity" is the essence of this issue and the framework within which different aspects of this law should be viewed and analyzed. We should keep in mind that in the imperialist countries "national unity" is reactionary. It is another name for imperialist chauvinism. In order to maintain the fundamental division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations, the imperialists need to unleash chauvinistic sentiments in their countries against the peoples of the world. Of course such chauvinistic sentiments have an objective basis in imperialist countries. Because of the enormous profits from their monopolistic economic activities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the imperialist bourgeoisie can bribe a section of its population, including the labor aristocracy, to keep its rule stable.

The split between the imperialist countries and oppressed nations has taken monstrous dimensions, and this is increasingly something that youth in the imperialist countries are rebelling against. This potentially revolutionary young generation is the main base of the anti-globalization movement. By fanning anti-foreigner feelings, the French bourgeoisie wants to prevent the spread of this revolutionary trend among French youth. In a situation where French imperialism is facing serious crisis and intense rivalry with other imperialists, it needs to fan chauvinistic sentiments more than ever. France needs "national unity" to be able to overcome the present crisis; so it has decided to bring French chauvinism more actively into play, suppress the lower class masses and unite the middle classes with the ruling class. The law to ban the veil is part of the ideological maneuvering of the French bourgeoisie in the present world situation.

It is a question of ideological need and ideological justifications to mobilize their social base for the bigger goals of the French bourgeoisie in the period ahead. In today's tumultuous world, the French ruling class needs "national unity" so that France can play its role in suppressing the oppressed masses of the world and at the same time carry out rivalry with the U.S. The "French nation" must be prepared and mobilized for reactionary imperialist wars. French soldiers must be convinced to kill and be killed for the national interests of France in the name of the French Republic.

The French bourgeoisie needs to do what was done in the U.S. after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Like the U.S. bourgeoisie, it needs a unifying factor within the country. The Western powers need to pose as "democracies" in conflict with "anti-democratic" forces. Considering the present developments in the world, it is necessary for the Western political system to put together a target of attack. The law to ban the veil, besides creating a repressive atmosphere in French society, also strengthens imperialist chauvinism.

These are the most fundamental goals the French bourgeoisie wants to accomplish with such laws. While the French bourgeoisie does not resort to fascistic religious fundamentalism, as does the U.S. bourgeoisie, and instead raises the banner of secularism to create public opinion, this does not indicate a fundamental difference in the nature of imperialist chauvinism. The difference is merely in form. These differences have to do with the cultural history of these countries, their internal class relations, and most importantly their international positions. The French ruling class needs to unleash an atmosphere of suppression against the lower strata. This is their real goal in proclaiming their commitment to laicism. The French bourgeoisie's banning of the veil is against the interests of women and the majority of the people of the world.