A document issued by a body that doesn’t exist
In August, Paris is empty. The roads are empty, the metro is empty, a few stoical employees are left to run offices where the phone doesn't ring. Le 15 août, the feast of the assumption, is a national holiday. Journalists worry they will run out of stories. On 5 August, Le Monde revealed that the High Council for Integration had recommended to the Observatory of Secularism that a headscarf ban be extended to French universities, ‘as a result of numerous disputes in all sectors of university life’. Le Figaro reported on its front page three days later that ‘78 per cent of French people oppose the wearing of the veil in university’. Manuel Valls, the interior minister, said that he found the HCI propositions ‘worthy of interest’.
But the mission on secularism of the High Council for Integration, created by Nicolas Sarkozy in April 2010, has been dismissed. The new Observatory of Secularism, set up by François Hollande, took over all responsibilities related to secularism in April this year. Le Monde published the conclusions of a body whose members stopped working in September 2012. ‘We were really surprised at having to react to a document issued by a body that doesn't exist any more, and in the middle of the summer,’ Nicolas Cadène, the Observatory of Secularism’s rapporteur-general, told me. He said that the report’s conclusions are not grounded in any serious quantitative study, and contradict all the studies he has seen. The Observatory of Secularism has no plans to take up the issue of a university headscarf ban.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the report is that it didn’t lead to controversy, which suggests that something may be changing in France. ‘Secularism must not stigmatise Islam,’ Unef, the leading student union, said in a press release. ‘No student has suffered any trouble because of a student wearing visible religious symbols,’ Mathieu Landeau, Unef's communications officer, told me. ‘There is a discrepancy between what people claim and what students actually experience.’ Unef is a secularist organisation and traditionally not in favour of the hijab. But ‘we would oppose a law banning it from universities because it would be discriminatory,’ Landeau said.
The anti-hijab laws – beginning with the ban on veils in schools in 2004 – have exacerbated islamophobia in France. Islamophobic assaults, often targeting women wearing hijabs, have increased. The work of campaigners such as the Collective against Islamophobia in France has raised awareness and helped victims seek justice in court. In July, in the Parisian suburb of Trappes, a police identity check on a woman wearing a niqab raised questions about Sarkozy's 2011 law banning the full veil from public spaces. And last Monday, again in Trappes, a 16-year-old girl wearing a hijab spoke out about being assaulted by two men. There is a growing awareness in France that islamophobia has been allowed and framed by a political and journalistic elite, and people are starting to resist the process, even in the middle of the summer.