VIEW: Europe goes communal —Marieme Helie Lucas - Thursday, April 21, 2011

Today, in France, like in most parts of Europe, right wing parties cannot afford to dispense with the support of far right xenophobic parties, which are fast rising 

Three days after the enforcement of the French law that prohibits full face covering, and after the first women law-breakers have been fined, the international media focuses on ‘protesting Muslims’, while the voices of the vast majority of presumed ‘Muslims’ in France are ignored.

It is clear that Sarkozy chose to go for a new controversial law, rather than make use of existing laws and regulations on public security that would have allowed him to curtail legally the full face covering veil, because he is courting votes from the National Front, an extreme right party, in view of the 2012 presidential elections. Today, in France, like in most parts of Europe, right wing parties cannot afford to dispense with the support of far right xenophobic parties, which are fast rising: they score around 15 percent in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and Hungary, and more than 30 percent in Switzerland and Serbia.

Even more radical new extreme right groups have emerged on the right of the traditional extreme right parties. In their view, the French state is far from taking a strong enough position vis-à-vis Muslim fundamentalism. For instance, in France, such groups undertake provocative street action against ‘Islam’, in response to other provocative street action by Muslim fundamentalist groups. Both new extreme right groups and Muslim fundamentalists are looking for a physical confrontation that would rally and radicalise their troops. So far, the state and its police have turned a blind eye to these illegal actions — a policy of laissez-faire that many fear will incite further violence.

An unholy alliance of Muslim fundamentalist groups, human rights groups, left and far left parties choruses into a simplistic defence of Muslim religious rights. The international media gives them full coverage.

One has to raise issue with the absence of proper coverage by the English language international media regarding the public stands taken by French citizens of migrant Muslim descent. In recent years, many such individuals and groups, among them numerous women, went public on three occasions — they testified to the Stasi Commission to defend the 2004 law that reiterates the founding secular principles of the French republic defined in the laws of 1905 and 1906. These laws institute the separation of state and ‘church’ (a century ago, it was the Catholic Church, and Islam was not at all in the picture). It follows suit that children under adult age are not allowed to wear any sign of their religious affiliation (i.e. neither cross, nor veil, nor kippah, etc.) in state schools, where education is compulsory, entirely free and secular. Ironically, this law is now erroneously labelled the world over as ‘the law against the veil’!

In 2005, they picketed day and night to defend various public facilities such as schools, health centres, sports centres, libraries, etc., from the unemployed youth who were setting them on fire during two week long riots, explaining to the youth the meaning of res publica — something that belongs to all citizens.

In 2011, they testified in numbers to the Gerin Commission to demand that full-face covering be curtailed in France. However, many would have preferred that existing regulations be used for doing so, thus avoiding a new law that stigmatises a section of the population. This option would also have spared them the over-simplistic accusation of siding with the rightist social programme of Sarkozy, which in actual fact they do not support.

Why are French citizens of migrant Muslim descent capable of a complex political analysis, which many media and political parties seem incapable of? The bulk of immigration in France came from North Africa, and within it from Algeria. It started between the two world wars and grew fast after World War II. It mostly consisted of unskilled workers. Those workers grew political roots in the trade unions and workers’ parties. They were further politicised during the liberation struggle of Algeria against French colonisation. Many of them, whose families have lived in France as French citizens for three or four generations, are just not religiously inclined.

An overwhelming majority never set foot into a mosque. Through family ties with relatives living in Algeria, they had received first hand accounts of crimes committed against the population by armed fundamentalists. The latest wave of immigration, in the nineties, consisted of intellectuals, artists, writers, feminists, etc., who had saved their lives by fleeing armed fundamentalist violence in Algeria. They have first hand experience of what it means to live under the boot of the Muslim right, and they do identify in France the early warning signs of their political rising. Inducing or imposing culturally alien dress codes on women is one of these signs.

Such French citizens are especially well equipped to, on the one hand, fight racism and discrimination in jobs and housing that indeed affect citizens of migrant descent (unemployment of youth rises from an average 10 percent to 16 percent for the youth of migrant descent, and even up to 50 percent in the ‘suburbs’ around Paris), and on the other hand, to stand for secularism, firmly refusing that social and political problems be addressed through a religious lens.

One should acknowledge their political courage and clarity, and learn from their analysis. If we do not, we will witness the communalisation of France and of Europe, through the abandonment of the notion of citizenship, as well as through ethnicisation and religionisation of laws. This process, against which French citizens of migrant Muslim descent are warning the world, is unfortunately already well under way.

The writer is an Algerian sociologist, founder and former international coordinator of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws — international solidarity network (, and coordinator of Secularism Is A Women’s Issue ( She can be reached via

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