Being a French citizen comes with its benefits. Having the world’s “most valuable” nationality unlocks entry to over 130 countries and access to the most heavily funded welfare program in the world. But what does it take to truly become French?
The legal requirements for naturalization are mostly standard fare: five years of residence and demonstrated fluency in French language and culture. Still, there is a rather telling additional stipulation: “Adherence to the fundamental principles and values of the [French] Republic.” Neighbouring countries like Germany and the United Kingdom have no such condition, whereas other countries like the United States demand that citizens defend a predefined document such as the Constitution. Meanwhile, no further guidance is offered regarding the nature or scope of these values. In fact, none is needed. The message is received loud and clear: ‘When in Paris, do as we do.’ France, like many European countries, presents itself as a paragon of democracy and secularism. However, a rapidly shifting demographic exposes its misguided approach to implementing Church-State separation and highlights the perils of structural racism and xenophobia in a multicultural democracy.
The French Constitution opens by professing commitment towards a “secular, democratic and social Republic.” Secularism—or ‘laïcité’—has been a key ideological underpinning of French policy since 1905. Under this premise of secularism, existing legislations outlaw the display of “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools and government service. In March 2021, the French Senate passed a bill that would extend the ban to any public place. This ban disproportionately affects the five million French Muslims who attribute strong cultural significance to religious veils such as the hijab. Sympathizers defend the laws by calling them necessary divides between religion and public life, purportedly disillusioned with religion’s hold on society since the French government’s long struggle with the Catholic Church. But by taking this stance, they fail to recognize that for ethnic minorities, religion and identity tend to go hand-in-hand. In light of the Islamophobia currently gripping Europe, it is also difficult not to view their defense as another insidious enforcement of cultural homogeneity. The French government should recognize that — despite their best efforts — society cannot exist in a vacuum and that France’s current social ethos is shaped by its Christian past. Admitting this reveals that the real expectation on Muslims is not to assimilate but to disappear silently into the background of an unduly deified status quo predicated on Western principles.
To understand France’s current discrimination against the hijab, one must look to its colonial past. After France invaded Algeria in 1830, settlers introduced the “indigénat,” a nebulous set of regulations that not only separated “natives” from French people but also relegated the former to a second-class citizenship. Aspiring Muslim citizens would have to renounce their Islamic traditions and culture to adopt a “French” identity, creating an insurmountable gap between Frenchness and Islam by placing one in fundamental opposition to the other. Since 1905, when France became a secular state, practices associated with Islam have never truly lost their alienness. A recent YouGov poll of 958 French Muslims of Arab origin shows that over two-thirds believe that others perceive their religion negatively. Islamophobic rhetoric also dominates most political discussions. Demanding that Muslims wholly conform to ‘secular’ social norms as they are simultaneously discriminated against for their faith is callous at best. At its worst, it is a dangerously volatile mixture of white supremacy, xenophobia and misogyny. True functioning of democratic machinery requires that citizens feel protected and cared for by both the state and their social environment. To deny French Muslims basic freedoms of existence and religious expression tends them towards a de facto disenfranchisement antithetical to the government’s supposed aim of peaceful assimilation.
The debate surrounding the unveiling of Muslim women also often presents itself as an infringement by outdated customs and tradition upon basic human rights. Conversely, the hijab has historically been an instrument of dignity and political resistance for Muslim women. During colonial rule, Europe sexualised the veiled woman’s femininity as enticing and exotic. Unveiling the “Oriental” woman became an object of fixation among colonizer men. Here, the hijab and other garments functioned as shields for the preservation of honor by allowing them to uphold their faith. Later, in the Algerian Revolution, women would use haiks—a local Islamic garment—to covertly transport information and weapons without attracting undue attention, imbuing them with an avenue to participate in the struggle and cause social disruption through guerilla warfare. They were also employed in Egyptian intellectual circles in the 1960s to protest Western consumerism and materialism. All these instances demonstrate how women used the hijab to empower themselves and generate agency in a patriarchal society. While forced practicing of any activity is discouraged, the hijab has never intrinsically been a method of subjugation, nor did Muslim women need any saving from it. Human rights are not endemically Western, and women must not be stopped from empowering themselves as they see fit. The savior complex is symptomatic of a larger issue: analysis of minority cultures through a Western lens and an implicit evaluation of inferiority. Claiming them to be oppressive establishes a hierarchy of values that perpetuates the narrative of non-Western groups being “backward,” “illiberal,” and “undemocratic.” This, coupled with the unfounded belief that democracy is a Western concept, places minority groups on unequal footing as citizens and reinforces their perceived otherness.
By 2050, it is projected that almost a fifth of France will be Muslim; as such, Muslim culture demands proper inclusion into French society. Politicians must move away from the stigmatization of Islam and the conflation of it with fundamentalist elements that seek only to perpetuate terror. “Religion-blindness” is far from the solution; rather, it hinders the same freedom of religion that it purports to uphold. A nation achieves true democracy only when all rights and responsibilities have a symbiotic relationship and are indiscriminately distributed across all citizens. Gatekeeping what it means to be a French citizen through invisible cultural barriers takes many steps back from this democratic ideal. Europe must choose to embrace its diversity and have it adequately represent the people who compose it; failure to acknowledge its multicultural future threatens to endanger the very fabric of its democracy.