France’s Senate on Tuesday approved an amendment that would extend a controversial 2004 law banning people from wearing overt religious symbols – including the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippah and large Christian crosses – to the adults accompanying children on school trips. The law currently prohibits such symbols from being worn in all public institutions including schools, libraries and government buildings.

Critics say the decision is the latest example of France’s renowned secularism having gone too far. Eric Roux, the President of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom and a well-known activist in the field of freedom of religion or belief, spoke to New Europe about the French government’s recent decision and the fresh wave of protests that the move has sparked.

 NEW EUROPE (NE): France is again embroiled in a major controversy about the Muslim veil. Recently, a Regional Councilor from the Rassemblement National (previously known as the Front National), during a meeting of the regional parliament of Bourgogne-Franche Comté region, publicly asked a woman who was accompanying children to remove her hijab, asserting that according to law, she was not allowed to wear it in the chamber. This caused an uproar in France and the Islamic headscarf became once again a bone of contention throughout the French media. Can you explain what is going on?

ERIC ROUX (ER): The whole controversy is based on the fact that in France, due to what we call the principle of neutrality and the principle of separation of church and state, civil servants do not have the right to wear any religious symbols. However, this only applies to civil servants and people exercising a public service role – a role that belongs to the State. Mothers who accompany children during a school trip are not subject to the neutrality obligation and, naturally, have the right to wear a Muslim headscarf or any other religious symbol as guaranteed by the right to freedom of religion. Some think that this should be different and that the hijab should be banned for mothers during school trips, or even further, everywhere in a public space.

NE: The French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, whilst stating that the wearing of the hijab was not forbidden by law for mothers accompanying children during school trips added that it is, nevertheless, undesirable. By saying that, he’s now taken a position against the wearing of the hijab, right?

ER: Indeed, it was not a very good statement, I think. He might think that personally, but as a member of the government, he should himself maintain a position of religious neutrality. By stating that such a practice, which is a religious practice that does not pose any threat, danger or violence, is not desirable, he falls away from neutrality and effectively fuels dissension amongst the population because it is a statement by the government.

NE: Some other members of the government took the opposite view to Blanquer’s and President (Emmanuel) Macron had to speak out in order to calm the controversy, saying that it is “not his business” whether Muslim women wear a hijab in a public space. Do you think he was right?

ER: He is right in the sense that the State should not intervene in restricting religious practices in public spaces. He represents the State. I presume that he wanted to avoid falling into the trap of being seen to be either in favour of or against the Muslim veil. He kept a neutral position and reminded us that in France the free exercise of religion should be a reality. However, in another sense, I think it is his business. The reason is that the State, per international standards on freedom of religion or belief, has a duty to protect the freedom of religion of its citizens. Even in the 1905 French law on the separation of church and state, known as the law on laicity, it is written that “The Republic guarantees the freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion…” So there is a duty to act to protect the right to freedom of religion of belief of people within France’s borders.

I don’t think the younger generation has the same problem with the Muslim veil as the older generation. I can’t support this thought with figures or data, as it’s only based on my personal experience when talking to younger people, but I believe it to be so. They are more used to religious diversity and are maybe more open, less rigid. They definitely don’t see in a simple headscarf a threat to their country. They are more respectful of individual freedoms, without being individualist. We should speak more to them and maybe stop fueling controversies that are only generated by the older generation.

NE: What do you think of the arguments from those who would like to ban the hijab, and say that, in actual fact, the wearing of the hijab is not done with free will, but is instead a symbol of the enslavement of women and comes from a restrictive reading of the Koran? Recently 100 Muslim women even signed an opinion column defending this position and some are saying that in the places where women wear the hijab, they do it because they are under social pressure or are insulted or even worse. Isn’t it a real problem?

ER: It is definitely a problem when it happens. But it is a problem for law enforcement. Forcing someone to wear a hijab, or insulting someone publicly because he or she does not wear a headscarf, are criminal offences. There the state not only has to think about how to enforce the rule of law but also how to prevent it and create a better atmosphere in some places which are “forgotten by the Republic”. Regardless, restricting religious freedom further is definitely not a solution. It would add to the problem. You cannot forbid a woman to wear the hijab when it is her decision just because others are forced to wear it more or less against their will. You cannot even pretend to decide what is religious for her. I would not enter into theological considerations on Islam and the hijab, but if a woman wants to express her religiosity by wearing a hijab, it’s fine with me.

Many studies show that the level of security in a country is proportional to the level of freedom of religion or belief. The office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the OSCE just published new guidelines for the EU’s members called “Freedom of Religion or Belief and Security: Policy Guidance”. It is very clear in stating that the more you provide for freedom of religion or belief and both guarantee and promote it, the less room you accede to radicalisation and justifications for violence. It explicitly says that in the EU, “certain laws, security policies and practices have placed freedom of religion or belief and other universal human rights under significant pressure. Such measures, especially those that are very broad or applied arbitrarily, are often enacted in the name of ‘national’, ‘state’ or ‘public’ security, or in the interests of preserving or maintaining ‘peaceful coexistence’, ‘social stability’ or ‘social harmony’.

Experience shows that such limitations can worsen rather than improve security.” I wish all French politicians would read these guidelines in full. They contain very comprehensive recommendations that if they had been put in practice, would certainly have enhanced the relationship we have with Muslims in France. The world is changing and so is France. We have to be able to accept new religions growing in both number and diversity on our territory, without abandoning our identity. French identity is also, or should also be, based on freedom.

This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition