In an interview with Libération Manuel Valls said that Muslim headscarves should be banned from French universities. The debate is fierce, with two left wing traditions pitted against each other: live and let live and laïcité.
Such a ban is already in place in schools and the public sector since 2004, and is extended across all symbols of faith, from headscarves and crosses to the kipa.
His comments triggered a new backlash from his own Socialist party, especially as he admitted that widening the scope of a prohibition on Islamic attire would require a constitutional amendment.
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem spoke about freedom of conscience and religion for “adults,” as well as the need to accommodate foreign students. The Higher Education Minister, Thierry Mandon, also spoke of “adulthood.” Criticism comes from all corners, as politics, religion, and belief cannot be excluded from the university.
Controversially, the university is at the heart of laïcité, one of the founding principles of the French Republic. Laïcité, that is, the principle of separation between church and state, has widened in scope to demand the prohibition of symbols of faith across the state-controlled public sphere.
That is an issue in a country with a sizable Muslim population. But, this is a battle that has been long established. In 2011, France banned the Muslim Niqab or Burqa anywhere in public, for adults and minors alike. Full cover dressing is seen as a symbol of oppression against women, with Muslims reacting to a law that specifically stigmatized their religion.
That debate too is not unique.
In March, the minister for gender equality Laurence Rossigno compared women who advocate for headscarves to Negros who supported slavery. Valls was there in support of that statement.
Passions are more heated after the Paris and Brussels attacks.
“I want us to be able to demonstrate that Islam … is fundamentally compatible with the Republic, with democracy, our values and equality between men and women,” Valls said.