The hijab, racism and the state

Issue: 102

Antoine Boulangé

The start of the 2003 school year saw two young women, Alma and Lila, excluded from a secondary school in France for wearing the Muslim headscarf, or hijab. This new ‘headscarf affair’ has revived a debate going back 15 years on the place of Islam in the state school system and society at large.

Prime minister Raffarin declared he would be ‘unflinching in his determination’ over this issue. Referring to the exclusions in Seine Saint Denis, he said, ‘In matters of education the republic must dominate over faith and, as recent events show, the means are at our disposal’.1 For months the Raffarin government talked of introducing a bill on secularity and the place of religion in school—a bill which has now become law. The real target is Islam, as former prime minister Alain Juppé has admitted: ‘Religious extremism is a threat to the republic. Wearing conspicuous insignia is not acceptable. There must be legislation to prevent the Islamic headscarf being worn’.2 Some right wing MPs have gone so far as to say openly that the headscarf should be banned, not onl—y in school but in public places and on the streets. The editorial writer for Le Point, Claude Imbert, has even stated:

One must be honest. I am something of an Islamophobe and I’m not embarrassed to say so… I have the right to think, and I’m not the only one in this country to think that Islam—and I’m talking of Islam as a religion, not just Islamists—is backward-looking and unhealthy. It has a way of viewing women, of systematically downgrading women…[and] wants Quranic law to supplant the law of the state. All this makes me Islamophobic.3

The body to which he belongs, and which is responsible for the plight of immigrants in France (the High Council for Integration), gave him their backing. Nobody on the right condemned the statement.

This attack on Islam is part of the government’s racist offensive. The aim is to scapegoat immigrants and deflect attention from the real problems of society. This is particularly crucial in education—a sector that has been at the forefront of the strike movement against Raffarin’s policies and where, in 2000, teachers’ strikes forced Allègre, the socialist minister, to resign. For several years it has been central to the fightback. The government is trying to regain the initiative by making the issue of the headscarf a divide and rule factor among school students, teachers and parents—the better to regain control. Focusing on the headscarf allows it to conceal the real problems affecting schools (social inequalities, unemployment, job insecurity, discrimination and privatisation), rather than tackle them:

The idea of a law to stop headscarves being worn in school continues interior minister Sarkozy’s xenophobic offensive over law and order. Demonising the Muslim population, whether immigrants or those from an immigrant background, has been reinforced since 9/11 with the fantasy of a ‘terrorist conspiracy fomented in housing projects on city outskirts’.4

There is, moreover, the global context. To justify his war without end, Bush has made Islam and Muslims the pretext for a new ‘crusade’. Propaganda masks the real reason for this war without end and the issues at stake—which in reality is a continuation of economic war. But to impose this new ‘imperial order’ involves breaking every form of resistance, dividing one people against another and using racism. In their own ways, European governments are adopting the same logic as the US—with less spending on welfare and more on law and order, the poor and immigrants have become the targets to be picked off. A reason must be found to justify the growing military and state security budgets (the US in 2004 will spend $400 billion, with $87 billion extra for Iraq alone—France will spend 3.9 percent more than the previous year, rising to €42 billion, with €90 billion additional investment for 2003-2008). During the Cold War the ruling class gave ‘the Communist threat’ as the reason. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new one was needed. Islam plays this role for Bush and the Western ruling classes: ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’ In the days that followed 9/11 several thousand Muslims were detained in the US. In one month over 100 mosques were destroyed or burnt down. France, too, has witnessed a steady rise in anti-Muslim incidents over the last few years.

That is precisely why, on the issue of headscarves in school, these schoolgirls’ right to education must be defended. As Pierre Tévanian says:

Opposition to the exclusion of Alma and Lila should be self-evident. Public education must be open to all… If the secular school system starts selecting its intake and says that this or that group is not secular enough to have the right to public schooling, it is no longer secular: it becomes reserved for particular school students.

Regrettably this is not a majority attitude on the left today. Former ministers Fabius and Lang and almost the entire Socialist Party have come out against the wearing of headscarves in school. This is not surprising. In government they pursued practically the same policies as the right, and made no bones about using the same racist weapons to implement their neo-liberal agenda. That the radical left is divided on this issue is perhaps more surprising. Yet at Aubervilliers it was Lutte Ouvrière teachers who started the campaign to expel Alma and Lila. And one of the leaders of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), who teaches Alma and Lila, voted for their exclusion at the disciplinary hearing. But as an organisation the LCR’s position is not yet settled. There is an ongoing debate, with some of its members and the youth section clearly opposed to the exclusions.

Of course, the radical left and the teachers on strike against the destruction of public services have not become racist and reactionary. They continue to resist the government, fight against racism and demonstrate in defence of the sans papiers.5 Those who support the exclusions rest their case on two main arguments—one is that the headscarf serves to oppress women, and the other is that it undermines the principle of secularity.

The aim of this essay is to reply to these arguments. It starts not from the fantasies circulated about Islam in France but from reality. Islam is not the threat many would have us believe. What characterises any religion is its ambiguity. It is a tool of domination for those who run the system. But it can also be a tool of resistance for the oppressed. Islam is not homogenous. The state Islam of the Middle East should not be confused with that of French immigrants who are subjected to state racism. Olivier Roy, an authority in this matter, underlines the point:

Most of the young are radicalised in the West. Those drawn to radical Islamism are mostly ‘born again Muslims’.6 They have become Islamised in the West. What they contest is something very modern: US imperialism, capitalism, etc. In a word, they have taken over domain of intellectual debate which 30 years ago belonged to the proletarian left, 20 years ago to ‘direct action’ and a century ago to the ‘Bonnot Gang’,7 etc. We are talking here of a domain of militant debate abandoned by the extreme left. It is the only one available to these young people who wish to ‘break’ the system.8

We need a coherent left wing answer to the discrimination from which Muslims, and more particularly Muslim women, suffer. Socialists’ aim is to combat racist divisions and to strengthen the unity of all those whose interest it is to change the world. The real enemy is the system, capitalism, which exploits and oppresses the vast majority of the planet. We need to unite the majority of the exploited and oppressed, no matter their religion or sex, if we are to give ourselves the means to transform the world. In constructing this unity we can forge a genuine political alternative (one which Islam does not offer). It can be the motor for radically overthrowing this society.

The place of Islam in France

France has a Muslim population of between 3 million and 4.5 million. Most are immigrants from Africa (the Maghreb9 or black Africa) or come from an immigrant background. The claim peddled by the extreme right, that France has been ‘Islamised’, is a fantasy. The population figure has remained relatively static since the early 1980s. Up until the beginning of the 1970s most immigrants were black men from the Maghreb who usually returned to their own countries after a few years of work. But as the situation in Africa tragically worsened from the 1970s onwards, because of economic crisis, neo-liberal attacks and structural adjustment programmes, more and more immigrants want to remain in Europe. Their permanent settlement has created what are called ‘second and third generation immigrants’.

Islam has thus become the second religion in France. With the immigration controls and family regroupment policy introduced by President Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, the immigrant population changed. Women immigrants or women of immigrant origin increased in number. Husbands settled in France, where their wives joined them. The children born of immigrants make up the second and third generations.

Grasping the link between immigration and the Muslim religion is essential, as this highlights the fact that not all religions are treated equally in the West. Islam is mainly the religion of immigrants and is the victim of racism. Islam is an oppressed religion in France.

Racism and colonialism

Racism developed with capitalism and colonialism. Islamophobia is the result of this:

There is a racist context for Islamophobia which 9/11 revived, and which is deeply rooted in French colonial history. Reading the juridical texts of 1865, which legitimise the special status given the colonised, one can see that this is no biological racism but a cultural racism—one based on seeing the colonised as belonging within Muslim law, which was judged ‘contrary to morality’.10

Officially, segregation in Algeria was religious. Before 1962 the French administration characterised the Algerian population as ‘Muslim French’. Racism and Islamophobia therefore play a crucial role in France in dividing and weakening the working class as a whole.

Modern racism, with its rhetoric about cultural difference, tacitly takes up old notions about racial inferiority. Capitalist development depends on the exploitation of free wage labour. But the working class, which sells its labour power to capital, is itself divided. Capitalist production depends on the division of labour (manual and mental labour, the fragmentation of productive tasks), each worker being only one link in an immense chain. Capitalism forms a hierarchy, with workers engaged in permanent competition with one another in the labour market.11

But capitalism also develops globally, across frontiers, and sucks in workers of different national origins. Capitalists employ immigrant labour for the benefits it brings them. Immigration increases the flexibility of the labour force. Massive numbers of African immigrants were brought to France in the 1960s because labour was in short supply and unemployment virtually zero. Then with the advent of crisis from the 1980s onwards they were no longer wanted in the host country. Very often, job insecurity forced them to accept lower wages and worse conditions of work.

Immigration enables capitalists to cut labour costs and maintain profits. In September 1963 the then prime minister, Georges Pompidou, declared, ‘Immigration offers a way to reduce pressure in the labour market and to defuse social pressure’.12 Marx had long before drawn attention to the divisions between English Protestant workers and Irish Catholic immigrants in 19th century England:

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers—in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.13

The capitalist class has to perpetuate racist ideology, which is crucial for them, while simultaneously creating a multiracial workforce. In the 1930s the Spanish, Portuguese and Jews were stigmatised. Today it is Arabs and Muslims.

The truth about the headscarf in school

The ruling class maintains racism by spreading prejudices that have no basis in fact, but which harm the consciousness of the majority. We are led to believe that there is currently a Muslim problem in French schools even though this is completely contradicted by reality.

Out of 5 million secondary school students there were, according to the government, roughly 150 problem cases between 1990 and 1992. In an interview for Humanité, Hanifa Chérifi, the government intermediary on the issue, explained that cases had ‘peaked’ at 300 in 1994 (coinciding with Pasqua’s racist offensive), but that now the rate had dropped back to 150 a year. Other investigators talk of the number being around 100. How a few hundred young women could be a threat to the school system is difficult to fathom. In 1989 the Council of State decreed that headscarves could be worn in school (though it equivocated by banning ‘conspicuous’ insignia). Yet there was no spectacular leap in numbers. Studies estimate that no more than a few thousand young women wear headscarves in school (so very much a minority), and there is nothing to indicate any recent increase. However, some radical and revolutionary organisations have fallen into the trap of mistakenly claiming the opposite. On 26 September 2003 the headline in Lutte Ouvrière over the exclusion of Alma and Lila at Aubervilliers was ‘Schools Under Attack From The Veil’,14 implying that this was becoming a major problem, and that the wearing of headscarves was on an upward spiral. We have to patiently explain and demonstrate that this is not true.

Accepting the headscarf in school is often said to open the door to ‘communitarianism’, thus undermining republican universalism. But that is to hide the fact that ‘communities’ already exist—in the wealthy areas of the capital, such as the 16th arrondissement or Neuilly, and at exclusive schools for the rich, such as Louis Le Grand or Henri IV. Society is unequal, and its constituent social classes are real. The right’s condemnation of the communitarianism supposedly practiced by Muslims or immigrants is completely hypocritical. They are the first to send their children to private schools for the rich, where social selection operates. The low status of immigrants in Western societies is the main reason why they tend to turn in on themselves. The history of Muslims in France is that

…of a workforce exploited at work and often super-exploited over housing: a workforce included within society but excluded from it culturally and politically… The younger generations which are its descendents have on the whole been excluded socially… Racism marks a double rejection on the part of French society, both socially and culturally… That counts strongly when it comes to affirming an Islamic-based identity: ‘You say I’m different? Well, yes I am, I’m Muslim, and that’s where I find the strength to live and survive in this society’.15

What must be fought, therefore, are the causes of this situation, not the oppressed themselves.

There is much talk of a fundamentalist Islamic threat existing in mosques and city outskirts. No serious studies back this up. Xavier Ternisien, a journalist at le Monde, has summarised their findings. They all prove the exact opposite of what the media and entire political establishment would have us believe:

What every investigation on the ground shows is that mosques in France, with some rare exceptions, are not centres of radical Islamism. To make such claims at the moment is to be accused of living in cloud cuckoo land. However, the facts are there—mosques and prayer rooms are not places where holy war is preached.16

The constant amalgamating of what is supposed to be a drift towards Islamism in France with what is happening in Afghanistan or Algeria is utterly without foundation. Starting from political or ideological presuppositions, rather than from reality, prevents us from understanding why the French state’s systematic repression of young Muslims has to be opposed.

There is, for instance, round intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut and Pierre-André Taguieff,17 a noisy intellectual current in the mass media which likes to pass itself off as democratic and progressive. These people are now campaigning for young Muslim women to be excluded from school. The facade is respectable, but from behind it emerges the reality of their anti-Arab racism, linked to unconditional support for the colonial policies of the Israeli state:

What is striking is that those most committed to banning the headscarf in school are those who most warmly welcomed Oriana Fallacci’s racist and Islamophobic scandal of a book. Alain Finkielkraut and Pierre-André Taguieff showed great indulgence towards this appalling work, while Bernard-Henri Levy severely condemned it—for its formal excesses.18

The attacks on Muslims in context

Since 9/11 the equation of Islam with fundamentalism and terrorism has been revived. Some days after the attack in New York an explosion occurred at the AZF chemical factory in Toulouse. Hassan Jandoubi, a factory employee killed in the accident, was accused of committing an attack because he was wearing ‘two pairs of trousers one over the other and four sets of underwear, two pairs of briefs and two pairs of boxer shorts’—an outfit reminiscent of ‘kamikaze mythology’.19 For days the press and the television churned out this story. A succession of journalists went to Hassan’s mosque to tell us that the imam was a dangerous Islamist. This was simply a lie to draw attention away from Total’s responsibility for the accident, a lie that strengthened anti-Muslim racism.

The same kind of manipulation of public opinion recurs regularly. In December 2002 Sarkozy carried out a series of arrests on ‘Islamist networks’ at La Courneuve, Romainville, Bondy, etc. Yet again this was propaganda to make us think that Bin Laden was on the doorstep. At the same time the entire media announced the discovery of a nuclear, bacteriological and chemical uniform in Seine Saint Denis. Preparations for Islamist attacks were afoot! The terrorist gear then proved to be no more than an industrial painter’s outfit. In the same week the police arrested Abderazak Besseghir, a baggage handler at Roissy airport. They had discovered weapons in the trunk of his car. In a matter of hours he became the number one terrorist. People had to be made guilty in order to prove the threat real.20 It was one big lie, and a few weeks later he was freed. In the same period 200 airport platform employees at Roissy had their work permits revoked. Their crime was that their facial appearance was wrong—and the police thought that attendance at the mosque was dangerous. There are still several tens of young people cooped up in prison accused of Islamist terrorism when there is not a shred of proof against them. Racism is becoming commonplace and police harassment a daily occurrence.

The headscarf and women’s oppression

One major argument in favour of exclusion is that the wearing of the headscarf is oppressive. The truth is that religion reproduces the ruling ideas and customs in society. Every religion upholds family values, whose purpose is to keep women in a subordinate position, valued mainly for reproduction, while paternal authority is given mythic status. But that is not unique to Islam. In Western society the Catholic religion condemns contraception and abortion, forbids divorce and justifies inequality between the sexes.

Awareness of the reactionary values peddled by religion in no way justifies the exclusions. Even if we accept that young women who wear the headscarf are oppressed, it is senseless to want them excluded from school where they can study alongside other young women who do not wear the headscarf, and where the potential exists for them to be free. Those who defend exclusions are therefore in a totally contradictory position—the young women who wear headscarves are considered victims but are also forced to suffer repression. In reality, exclusion only reinforces oppression.

Sexism in society

‘The headscarf is unquestionably a sign of discrimination against women, intolerable in a country like our own where rights are respected’.21 Many of those who support the exclusions in the name of women’s rights forget how strongly women are oppressed in our own society. The Western world, so we are told, is ‘progressive’ and ‘advanced’—the position of women is a good one and can be offered as a model for ‘backward’ Muslims. Must we recall how deeply sexist ‘our’ society is? In France the average wage of men is 25 percent higher than women’s in comparable jobs; 85 percent of part time jobs are worked by women; women in relationships do 98 percent of the cleaning, 96 percent of household chores and 80 percent of the shopping; just 12 percent of French MPs are women.

Immigrant and Muslim families follow the same pattern. There are no statistics, it should be said, to indicate greater levels of domestic violence in Muslim or immigrant families living in comparable circumstances. Indeed, higher numbers of poor immigrant families live in poor areas affected by mass unemployment. It is not a matter of denying that Muslim women are oppressed. But this oppression does not have its roots in Islam—it is rooted in the role played by the family under capitalism. The headscarf symbolises one aspect of the domination of men over women. However, the idea that oppression can be fought by stigmatising this symbol or focusing on the religious question carries no credibility.

In fact this ‘secular and democratic’ society of ours abounds with symbols and structures that reproduce oppression. Marriage is the prime example, but it is much broader than this, for ‘the idea of property extends well beyond the limits of legal marriage’ (Alexandra Kollantai). The key site for violence against women—rape, the mistreatment of children—is the capitalist family (in 90 percent of rape cases the rapist is part of the family or family circle22 ). No one, however, would think of arguing that men who marry reproduce or are responsible for women’s oppression. Yet this is the reasoning many left wing activists use to justify exclusions—young Muslim women, oppressed both as Muslims and as women, are made to endure yet more repression.

The weight of fundamentalism

Young women who wear headscarves are frequently accused of being manipulated by fundamentalists. Alain Finkielkraut confidently asserts that ‘when they go to secondary school they are forced to put on headscarves. Because these have no place in the institution the young women are under surveillance from imams who patrol the schoolyard exits to check that headscarves are being worn properly’.23

This complete fantasy gets aired by the politicians, the press and the television every time such incidents occur. An excellent sociological study has shown how baseless it is:

The incidents behind the school exclusions, at Mantes or Lille, Strasburg or Goussainville, have helped prove that in many cases the headscarf is not imposed by the family but is freely chosen—it is not experienced as submission but as self-affirmation. These young women are the product of a society that has engaged in persecuting immigrants from North Africa for ten years.’24

Gaspard and Khosrokhavar’s book has some surprising revelations:

We met a good many young women wearing the veil who seemed to us closer to modern attitudes than some adults and young women not wearing the veil. A good many of them object to polygamy, to not being allowed to work outside the home, to inequality of rights in certain areas, etc… When they discuss among themselves they are not prepared to give up their autonomy. There is no question of their staying at home or accepting an arranged marriage… Even with their hair covered, their movements follow the body sensitivity of French society, not that of traditional Islamic society. When they are at recreation their movements and the way they relate to girls and to boys show this very well. They do not avoid body contact with others: they do not exist within a ‘space of shame’ impenetrable to boys; they show no apprehension at mixing with them. Only very inexactly do they embody the strict ethos of traditional Mediterranean societies.25

At the time of the previous incident in 1994, the education minister, FranÁois Bayrou, sent two women from an immigrant background to represent the ministry in talks with the young women wearing headscarves. The report, which received little publicity, goes against every preconception. One representative reported:

Paradoxically, the phenomenon is one of emancipation. With the headscarf they feel liberated. By placing themselves under the authority of God, they feel liberated from the authority of their fathers and brothers… One young women even told me that since wearing the veil she would go to debates and conferences.26

Pierre Tévamian emphasises how simplistic it is to equate ‘headscarf’ and ‘submission’. Young women can use the headscarf as a means of liberation despite being in other respects dominated. This is not to idealise the role played by religion but to show that religion, for all its being a tool of domination, can play a role in forging an identity—it can be a means of resistance in a racist society where immigrants and Muslims are oppressed. Indeed, state racism has increased as successive austerity policies have pushed entire layers of the population to the margins.

Those who defend the exclusions single out Islam: ‘The veil is not some straightforward religious symbol, such as the cross worn by girls and boys round the neck’, it is ‘the yellow star of the female condition’.27 Islam is likened to fascism as something that must be fought. A right wing MP made this clear when he argued that the law should not be against religious symbols in general. Rather, the Islamic headscarf had to be outlawed because it constituted a specific threat. To compare the headscarf in France with fascism is a complete absurdity.

One widespread (and particularly shocking) confusion on the part of some people is the way in which they amalgamate Islam in France with Islam in those countries where it is a state religion (Saudi Arabia, Iran). The two cannot be equated. Young women who wear headscarves in France cannot be blamed for the situation over there. Yet some say that wearing the headscarf in France is to legitimise attacks on women in those countries. This is completely absurd. Young women who wear headscarves in France want to protect their rights. They are fighting for the right to study in the public sector, not to attend a religious school. As one female student at Censier University put it, ‘You can fight here for the right to freely wear the headscarf as well as support the struggle of women in Iran to have the right not to wear it’.28

The struggle for women’s rights and the struggle against racism

In France today the major threat to women’s rights comes from the government, not young Muslim women. The right wants to reintroduce allowances for mothers and send women back into the home. Its pension reforms affect women in particular. As for the arguments raised by the headscarf issue, the reactions of the right are openly sexist and reactionary—junior education minister Darcos recently said of young women who reveal their navels or thongs, ‘It’s natural to ask of young women when they begin to be desirable that they should not be provocative’.29 Others question mixed schools. The Socialist Party, which claims to support the cause of women by supporting exclusions, had no such scruple when it reintroduced night work for women. So the fight must be against all moves to end the right to abortion or contraception. We struggle for more resources for women’s emancipation: for building creches on a massive scale, for free divorce, for real equality at work, not just formal rights.

Because discrimination is a reality, the oppressed can be led to believe that oppression is the main reason for situation they are in. Because Muslims are discriminated against in France, they may think that this is because Islam is not respected or implemented. Young Arabs in France may think that the only community in which they can find solidarity in a racist society is the Muslim community. That then leads them to demand a place for the Muslim religion. In a confused and often unconscious manner, this affirmation of one’s Muslim religion in a racist and Islamophobic society is already a form of resistance struggle, because it leads to a confrontation with racist prejudice. In the 1960s Malcolm X and the boxer Muhammad Ali30 explained that they joined the Nation of Islam because the descendants of slaves had to break with the religion of the slaveholders. This affirmation led to them confronting the oppressive, racist US state.

Many on the left and extreme left justify their current support for exclusions in the name of the struggle against women’s oppression—even if that means fighting against, rather than alongside, these women. Such a concept of the struggle leads to the notion that a well intentioned minority in possession of the truth can convince the majority independently of any process whereby consciousness is raised through the experience of struggle and clash of ideas.

Young Muslim women thus become a threat to be fought and isolated. They are excluded from a shared struggle against racism through which they can then be won to other struggles—against sexism and against capitalism. We have come across this kind of reasoning in other circumstances. The justification given for the war in Afghanistan was that it would liberate Afghan women from their oppression, from the burqa. The truth was that no emancipation could be brought from the outside, least of all by relying on the state, itself sexist, racist and imperialist. As Yves Sintomer put it at a forum on the exclusions at Aubervilliers, ‘To emancipate young women by force’31 is totally illusory. Our vision is of self-emancipation. The oppressed and the exploited can liberate themselves through their own struggle.

Exclusions can only be counterproductive. They isolate young Muslim women from other people, and only strengthen them in their worldview that the conflict is between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The headscarf and secularity

The other argument most frequently put forward to justify exclusions is the need to defend secularity, which would be undermined by young women wearing headscarves. The chief definition of secularity is that schooling is ‘independent of all religious denominations’.32 That does not mean school students lack religious convictions. Those who manage the present system hold to the theory that secular schooling is unbiased. School must be an apolitical ‘sanctuary’ protecting children from adult quarrels. However, secular school is anything but unbiased, as its history demonstrates.33

The birth of secular education

Under feudalism there was a near-fusion between the temporal power exercised by the king and the spiritual power exercised by the church (in the west, at least). In its struggle for power, the bourgeoisie engaged in a struggle to overthrow the ideology of religion. Secularity, which emerged around the time of the French Revolution, became the battleground for numerous struggles in the 19th century. The triumphant bourgeoisie set out to topple the bastions of the ancien régime one by one. It needed to deprive the Catholic church of control over education in order to instil the people with the victorious ideology of the new class in power. The bourgeoisie’s desire to open up education had its progressive side. Simultaneously, the bourgeoisie gave secularity an elitist aspect. Merit was how social inequalities could be justified.

Faced with the growth of the first trade unions and socialist parties, the most enlightened sections of the bourgeoisie understood that republican education had to be extended to the labouring classes. Jules Ferry, the reputed founder of secular education, made the point clear:

In religious schools the young receive an education which is entirely directed against modern institutions. The ancien régime is praised, as are the former social structures. If this state of things goes on, we fear that other schools, open to the sons of workers and peasants, will be founded, with diametrically opposed principles of teaching. It may be that these principles will be inspired by socialist or communist ideals of recent date, for example the violent and ominous period between 18 March and 24 May 1871.34

The dates he mentions are those of the birth and crushing to death of the Paris Commune. Education had become a critical issue. In 1880 there were 75,000 schools in charge of educating 5.6 million pupils in salles d’asile (poor houses), and in privately and publicly run primary schools.35

In 1881 Jules Ferry got parliament to vote for a law making schooling compulsory and free. In 1882 secular public schooling became law. Republican education was finally born.

It had to make universal school attendance a state obligation imposed on families under the supervision of a local education authority. And it had to guarantee this obligation for six to 13 year olds at a time when in 1880 many children still did not attend school regularly except between the ages of eight and ten. Longer and more regular attendance—that was the aim, to ensure that schooling could effectively and fully play its double role of training and education. State education would shape the mass of the population to respond to the growing needs of industrialisation for a skilled workforce and to the development of capitalism. It could also prevent a repeat of the Paris Commune. Jules Ferry’s letter to elementary school teachers, the famous ‘hussars of the republic’, needs to be seen in this light: ‘Love for the republic is national policy: using appropriate methods, you can and you must instil this into the minds of the young’.36

The supposed lack of bias could not hide the real ideological monopoly exercised by the government over education. Schooling was made to serve colonial and military state policy. In 1885 Ferry, nicknamed ‘Tonkin-Ferry’ (Tonkin was the name given to North Vietnam by the colonisers), told the National Assembly that colonisation was just because ‘the higher races have a right over the lower races. They have a right because they have a duty to civilise the lower races’.37 Yves Gaulupeau, the director of the National Education Museum, has revealed:

This was the period of ‘school battalions’—a republican invention set up by Paul Bert in 1882. The idea was to take advantage of the pupils’ time at primary school and instil notions of ‘patriotic citizenship’ through military exercises. The children would be made to drill with bayonets attached to fake wooden rifles. But they would also be taken to army ranges outside school where they would practice shooting, using real bullets. Rewards took the shape of copies of croix d’honneur that conformed to military medals and, as far as punishment was concerned, the strap was a passable imitation.38

For Jules Ferry, school was a means for ‘training’ the ignorant masses at the hands of a civilised elite, the republican bourgeoisie. School was to be the means for creating and disseminating myths about the nation and the history of France:

The image of France as a ‘person’ was born in a written culture handed down from one century to the next. It was the preserve of an elite of clerks and nobles, of aristocratic and bourgeois intellectuals, and inherited by the bourgeoisie who founded the Third Republic. For the purposes of state education, the latter canonised France as one and indivisible, created by kings and passed on by the revolutionary nation. The blank screen of the former royal religion had superimposed on it a religion of France inspired by nationalist and Jacobin versions of the revolution. This became the pedestal on which the republic of the imagination stood.39

As Marx explained over 150 years ago, ‘The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’.40 Republican ideology is no exception. Jules Ferry never intended education to be unbiased. He intended it to be at the service of the bourgeoisie. For all his reputation as the founder of republican, secular education, Jules Ferry never hesitated about making concession after concession to the conservatives:

A consensus existed among republicans to abolish the arrangements that gave the clergy control over educational institutions. To some degree that opened up freedom of thought. In the name of freedom of conscience, however, Jules Ferry would have allowed optional lessons in religion take place. Another solution eventually prevailed: there would be one day a week off school to make it easier to preserve the catechism.41

It was possible in most schools for the Catholic church to maintain chaplaincies. The school calendar was constructed around the Catholic calendar. The crucifix remained in most classrooms. Jules Ferry himself praised Christian values and the need for primary school teachers to develop spiritual values. As the state’s control over education grew, so did its warmth towards private, elitist and reactionary schools. In 1880 the religious educational establishment, which was almost entirely Catholic, stood at 500,000. That number rose to 1,125,000 by the turn of the century.42

State education was anything but unbiased. It was essential as an ideological and political tool of colonial policy. The state needed to staff ‘white’ staging posts in its colonies so that it could shamelessly exploit and pillage these countries. Throughout the whole period of colonisation Catholic missions were ideal for this task. With a gun in one hand and a crucifix in the other, the French state set out to civilise Africa and Asia. Secularity masked the true face of the capitalist state.

Only in 1905 was the separation of state and church officially proclaimed. The religious orders had come out openly against Dreyfus and were the carriers for all the worst anti-Semitic campaigns. The first fascist leagues began to appear in this period. The massacre of the Communards had been insufficient to break working class resistance. A left wing party around Jaurès had been very active in the support campaign which successfully cleared Dreyfus after a decade of struggle. 1905 was the tenth anniversary of the creation of the CGT trade union federation and the year in which the Socialist Party was founded. Under pressure from the left, the bourgeoisie had no choice but to agree the separation of church and state.

However, the place of religion in school was never seriously challenged. Because the bourgeoisie was in constant need of an ideology and a mythology to buttress its domination, it never consistently fought the religious institutions. Indeed, it was often in alliance with the Catholic hierarchy. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the law forbidding religious orders to teach was suspended. The Vichy regime scrapped it in 1940. When the First World War ended in 1918, the bourgeoisie refused to extend the 1905 law to the region of Alsace Moselle (which had formerly belonged to Germany) because it needed an alliance with the reactionary Catholic hierarchy to block the growth of working class struggles inspired by the Russian Revolution.

In 1951 fresh concessions were made. Private establishments were permitted access to public funds. In 1959 religious establishments were offered additional facilities—contracts in which the costs of day school teaching were paid by the state.

After its victory in 1981 the left moved rapidly to avoid any confrontation with traditional right wing milieux that supported Catholic education. Mitterrand had promised the ‘Spulen’, an acronym standing for a unified and secular public national education service. Its purpose was to get rid of denominational education. In 1984, as the right wing mobilised in defence of private education, the left wing government abandoned the idea. Alain Savary, who wanted an investigation into the privileges of private education, was replaced by Jean Pierre Chevènement, who went back to the conservative Debré law of 1959.

The right of all to public education

We believe that secularity has to be defined as the right of everyone to public education. Yet secularity in this sense is not honoured. The state refuses to put funds into employing labour, constructing new school buildings or buying equipment. After the 500,000-strong school student movement in 1998 the government ‘generously’ donated 200 million francs to be shared among secondary schools. This is the same amount as the money the state provided to participate in the World Days for Youth during the papal visit in 1997.

The secularity we defend has to do with the separation of religion from teaching—not with adopting an attitude towards the religious beliefs of the pupils. We are opposed to any kind of link between teaching and religious institutions. This is a fight which is far from over. A 14 year old girl persistently refused to attend lessons in Catholicism in the state school of Hagondange in Moselle. In December 1999 her mother had her family allowance withheld by the benefit office under instructions from the school inspector. She was even threatened with court action.43 In Alsace and Moselle religious lessons are obligatory. The Socialist government under Jospin even created a secondary school teaching qualification in religion for teachers of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism (but not for teachers of Islam, despite the fact that Islam is the second biggest religion in France). At the national level private education, which is 95 percent Catholic, is largely financed by the state. There are 1,500 chaplaincies operating within state schools.44 Not even the school calendar is unbiased. Muslim pupils are criticised for being absent during Eid, but school holidays, determined as they are by Catholic religious holidays, take place at Christmas, Easter and All Saints. The education minister, Luc Ferry, wants to reintroduce lessons about ‘religious facts’. These would be given by priests, Protestant pastors or public bodies. If it is a question of defending secularity then there are many other struggles to take up, rather than target a few thousand young Muslim women.45

Defending secularity at present can mean defending reactionary ideas and attempting to roll back a number of gains made in 1968. Quite correctly some on the left, as well as on the right, condemn the way in which logos on T-shirts, shoes and books are invading the classroom. Their answer is to bring back regulation over which clothes should be worn—in other words, to re-establish school uniform. A correct perception can lead to a reactionary conclusion if is disconnected from struggle. Uniforms are not any more progressive than logos. They have never challenged social inequality. The demand that they should be worn marks a return to authoritarianism and ‘moral values’. Luc Ferry is a good example of this reactionary struggle. He said himself that we must ‘fight against the spirit of 1968’.46 He made his politics explicit in a forum in Le Monde:

The message sent to the younger generation via the ideology that inspired the 35-hour week law is a grave one. It sees work as the enemy and the whole purpose of life as increasing leisure time—quite wrongly. This error may even destabilise our entire educational provision, which is already more guided by the fear of boredom than by a taste for effort.47

By adopting the policies of the French business confederation (MEDEF) he is only too willing to ignore all the real problems people face (redundancies, job insecurity, the economic and social difficulties experienced by families, the progressive destruction of public services) to end up with a still more unequal education system, part of it privatised. Raffarin’s education policy will produce the same result as Reagan’s or Thatcher’s—namely greater inequality at school. To get there he has to attack the young people who took to the streets against Le Pen or Bush, or who went to the anti-capitalist Larzac festival. Luc Ferry’s poison recipe is the following: ‘The pedagogic illusion par excellence, which has wreaked havoc for decades, is this: for too long we believed that motivation and constraint should be kept separate’.48 Youth must be stopped! Ferry’s junior minister, Darcos, said of Alma and Lila in his attack on young Muslim women, ‘If you don’t like the French republic, you must go elsewhere’.49 The attack on young Muslim women is just a beginning. It will start getting people used to obeying a stronger authority, a way of behaving to be copied subsequently in the workplace.

The move by Ferry—and before him the Socialist ministers Lang and Allègre—to cut state funding leads schools to contracts with the private sector. Successive governments of right and left have done nothing to discourage the growing participation of private enterprise in state education. Our kind of secularity is ‘kick the market out of education’, ‘schools are not for sale’ and ‘free education for all’. The anti-capitalist movement must develop and give support to teachers who fight the selling-off of state education.

Secularity was a principle that the bourgeoisie brought to its struggle against the aristocracy. Now the bourgeoisie needs a religion which reduces the ideals of 1789 to the level of myth in order to justify its rule. True secularity would have two conditions: on the one hand, a complete separation of religious institutions from the state; on the other, the creation of a single and wholly free state education which would be open to all, whatever their religion, whether believers or not. It would be independent of all private interests.

A ‘neutral’ school system is an illusion. We want one that is open to the world, in which the debates that sway society are an integral part of education. Secularity as it is prevents freedom of expression and weakens the oppressed still further. State schooling is subject to capitalist interests—just as it was 100 years ago. Our struggle is for something completely different—an education system without taboos which unites the oppressed and the exploited, which studies every religion, every set of ideas and the cultural heritage of every society, and which makes human history an instrument of emancipation, not domination. That kind of education runs counter to the state institutions of the bourgeoisie and will require the overthrow of the ruling order. In alliance with the oppressed, the working class, the majority class, whose thirst for knowledge is the greatest because it is deprived of knowledge, is the only class in society which has an interest in doing so.


The argument over the headscarf raises an important and complex question about oppression to which Marxists must have an answer. Tony Cliff provided a telling analogy:

If I’m travelling on a filthy dirty train, as a white man under capitalism I will have a seat next to the window. The woman or the black will have a seat away from the window in even worse conditions than me. But the real problem is the train. We have no control over the driver who is taking us all into the abyss.50

Because the prejudices which divide French people from Arabs, Christians from Muslims, are major obstacles on the road to workers’ emancipation, revolutionaries must defend the oppressed unequivocally. One cannot demand that the oppressed (in this instance, Muslims in France) first get rid of ambiguous aspects of their thinking before they struggle against their own oppression. This amounts to denying the role that oppression plays in securing ruling class domination.

The reality is that anti-Muslim racism weakens the working class as a whole and further divides their common interests. Not combating it can have serious consequences. Thus 100 years ago the socialists round Jules Guesde refused to oppose the persecution of a Jew, Dreyfus, because as an army officer he did not belong to the working class. His case was of no concern to workers, Guesde argued. This confusion meant that he failed to combat the racist poison of anti-Semitism, which divided and weakened the working class. Guesde went over to the camp of the most disgusting nationalism and racism when, in 1914, he became minister in the government that sent French workers off to massacre their German class brothers. If the radical left repeats the same mistake about Islamophobia today, it will pay dearly.

At the time of unrest in the car industry at the beginning of the 1980s, Pierre Mauroy, the Socialist Party prime minister, declared that this was a strike ‘manipulated by ayatollahs’.51 He wanted to break the strike in a sector of industry where the majority of workers were immigrants. This strategy does not always work. In 1982, when Citro’n went on strike, management tried the same provocation. They offered only pork and wine to the trade union delegates, many of whom were workers from an Islamic background. What management did not foresee was that this would be refused by every single delegate, both French and immigrant.

Lenin put the point very simply in 1902. He wrote that when workers go on strike for wage rises they are trade unionists, but when they strike in protest at violence against Jews or students they become true socialists. Solidarity with young Muslim women will strengthen the unity of all workers, whatever their religion. This will not only have a powerful impact in the struggle against racism. It will strengthen the confidence to fight on other issues.


Article translated by Gareth Jenkins.

  1. Quoted in Libération, 17 October 2003.
  2. Quoted in Le Monde, 29 April 2003.
  3. LCI, 24 October 2003,
  4. Emmanuel Sieglmann and Pauline Terminière, Rouge, weekly paper of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), 3 July 2003.
  5. Translator’s note: Immigrants without official papers whose vulnerable status subjects them to state and police persecution.
  6. Translator’s note: In English in the original.
  7. Translator’s note: A group of anarchists whose bank robberies met with public sympathy until a hold-up led to the death of a bank messenger. Their trial in 1913 became a political sensation.
  8. O Roy, in L’avenir de l’islam en France et en Europe (Paris, 2003).
  9. Translator’s note: The largely Arabic-speaking, ex French colonial area of North Africa.
  10. P Tévanian, L’Etincelle, no 32 (October 2003).
  11. See A Callinicos, Race and Class (London, 1993).
  12. Quoted in D Godard, Pourquoi devenir socialiste révolutionnaire (Socialisme International, 1994).
  13. K Marx and F Engels, On Britain (Moscow, 1962), p552.
  14. ‘Le voile á l’assaut des Ecoles’.
  15. M Wierworka, in L’avenir de l’islam en France et en Europe , as above.
  16. X Ternisien, La France des mosquées (Editions Albin Michel, September 2002).
  17. Translator’s note: A group of former left intellectuals who play a similar ideological role to the humanitarian imperialist ‘thinkers’ in Britain.
  18. R Brauman, in Antisémitisme, L’intolérable chantage (Editions La Découverte, September 2003).
  19. Reuters, after the AZF explosion, 21 November 2001.
  20. L’Etincelle, January 2003. Our analysis was confirmed some weeks later, proving that the Besseghir affair had nothing to do with terrorism.
  21. G Salom and A Seksig, ‘Clarté, fermeté, laïcité’, Libération, 12 November 1999. The authors were advisers to the then Socialist minister Jack Lang.
  22. National survey of violence towards women in France.
  23. A Finkielkraut, ‘Le foulard et l’espace sacré de l’école’, L’Arche, no 544-545.
  24. F Gaspard and F Khosrokhavar, Le foulard et la république (Editions la Découverte, 1995).
  25. As above.
  26. Libération, 8 December 1994.
  27. C Djavann, Bas les voiles (Gallimard, 2003).
  28. L’Etincelle. This reflects the statement by Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2003: ‘The pretext of the veil must not be used to close schools to young Muslim women… School is a place of freedom for women… Fundamentalists don’t want them going there,’ she argued (15 December 2003).
  29. X Darcos, LCI, 12 October 2004,
  30. M Mann (dir), Ali (2001).
  31. ‘Ne pas émanciper les filles de force’, Forum with Irène Jami, Anne-Sophie Perriaux, Yves Sintomer and Gilbert Wasserman, Libération 1 October 2003.
  32. Petit Robert dictionary.
  33. This section is elaborated further in A Boulangé, L’Education n’est pas une marchandise, at
  34. Jules Ferry, quoted in S Citron, Le mythe national, l’histoire de France en question (Editions de L’atelier EDI, 1991).
  35. J M Gaillard, Le Monde de l’Education, July-August 2000.
  36. As above.
  37. Jules Ferry, speech to MPs, 28 July 1885, quoted in S Citron, as above.
  38. Le Monde de l’Education, July-August 2000.
  39. S Citron, as above, p297.
  40. K Marx, The Communist Manifesto, in The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth, 1973), p85.
  41. As above.
  42. As above.
  43. US Mag, journal of the SNES-FSU, the principal secondary school trade union, September 2003.
  44. As above.
  45. One study (by the political police) estimates the number of young women wearing headscarves at school at 1,250. Others say that it is four times as many. That would give an upper limit of 5,000—out of 5 million secondary school students.
  46. L Ferry, Lettre à tous ceux qui aiment l’école (Editions O Jacob, 2003).
  47. L Ferry, Le Monde, 15 October 2003.
  48. As above.
  49. X Darcos, as above.
  50. T Cliff, Marxism at the Millennium (Bookmarks, 2000), p49.
  51. Lutte Ouvrière, no 1763, 10 May 2002.