In 2004, France banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols in schools. In particular, this bans the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish kippah, and the Sikh turban. The turban has now been exempted as Sikhs have argued that it is cultural rather than religious; the same argument therefore applies to the headscarf (which need not be an actual scarf, a hat would do) but this has not happened.

In 2010, France banned covering the face in public. In particular, this bans the niqab (although the vast majority of Muslims see the niqab as optional, some consider it to be recommended, and many observe it).

In 2016, many municipalities banned the burkini, although this was then suspended by the highest French administrative court.

Although these bans were all worded in religiously neutral ways, an argument could be made that they mostly affect Muslim women, and in fact the justifications for some of these (such as the Burkiki) explicitly mention combating what is perceived by some French politicians as the oppression of women.

Is there evidence that these bans were intended to specifically target Muslims?

  • 4
    Why are you conflating targeting those who oppress women with targeting Muslims?
    – Just Me
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 16:25
  • 4
    @JustMe the law is about secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools not about stopping women being oppressed. If a legislator wants to prevent oppression via the law, they should make laws about that. Not about secularism. Conflating the two issues causes more problems than it solves.
    – Jontia
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 16:50
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    @JustMe It would hardly be the first law to claim to target one thing while actually targeting another. Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:53
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    @JustMe How am I conflating the two? Nothing in my question is about oppressing women. The three laws cited are restrictions on what individuals are allowed to wear; since all three particularly affect Muslim women, I am asking whether we can consider this to be specifically targeted towards that demographic. It is absurd to suggest that a woman willingly covering her own head is oppressing women.
    – otah007
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 20:04

3 Answers 3


Yes, there is a plenty of evidence this is specifically about Muslim religious practices. The clearest of which is to be found in the legislative process leading to the 2010 niqab ban. Before being put to a vote, a bill is typically examined by the commission des lois of the relevant chamber. A member of the committee will draft a report on the bill and the whole committee will vote on it.

In that case, the report from the Senate's committee is public and available on its official website. That report explains that the bill results from another report presented to the national assembly regarding the “voile intégral” (litterally “full veil”, which is the usual name for what the media calls the “burka”). Beside the rapporteur, the senate report also includes the opinion of Christiane Hummel, who was consulted as the head of the committee on women's rights and equal opportunity between men and women.

In other words, this was specifically about the niqab and women's rights and not about religious symbols in general or making it possible to identify people (as the law as sometimes been reinterpreted, including by the courts, to sidestep discussion of its original intent). In fact, the report explains that the law was couched as a ban on covering one's face precisely to overcome objections from the Conseil d'État (one of France's supreme courts, which also advises the government and parliament during the legislative process) and heed the need to “deconfessionalize” the debate. While it argues that the “Islamic veil” was “a” reason to start the process and merely “revealed how important the face is in social life”, the connection with earlier efforts to ban the niqab are fully acknowledged and no other practice (religious or otherwise) is mentioned.

I don't have evidence as specific as this at hand regarding the 2004 law but the intent was just as unambiguous.

  • It could be clarified that this was intended to target muslim terrorists, not muslims in general, even if this is not mentioned in legislation and may be an idea born out of paranoia rather than rational reasoning. I can't prove this but it was no issue at all before several terrorist actions from islamic terrorists.
    – Reznik
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 23:55
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    @Reznik It's clearly not targeted at Muslim terrorists. Firstly, the vast majority of terrorists are men. Secondly, banning the headscarf or face veil does nothing to prevent terrorism; I would love to see how you think stopping someone from covering their hair reduces the chance of them setting off a bomb. Thirdly, religious discrimination like this disenfranchises and marginalises Muslims, and makes them feel attacked and antagonised, which would only increase terrorist sentiment.
    – otah007
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 3:56
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    @CGCampbell Which ban? The 2010 ban on wearing the niqab on the street doesn't apply to the kippah. In 2020, kippot are a common sight in my neighbourhood in Paris. The 2004 law about religious signs in schools would probably apply but like I wrote at the end of the answer I have little direct evidence to offer regarding this law, even the intent was very clear in my memory. Finally wearing any of these has been strictly forbidden for civil servants (including teachers, but not pupils or parents participating in school activities) for some time before that.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:08
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    @CGCampbell My interpretation of the question is that the OP is interested in all three events (two statutes and a bunch of invalid municipal ordinances) because they suggest a trend of reinterpreting a seemingly neutral principle in a biased way. I personally believe this trend is real (and worrisome) and also evident in the general tone of media commentary, individual court cases (the 2013 Babilou decision by the Cour de cassation) and many other small events but I focused on the 2010 law because its intent is unambiguous and it involves the highest levels of the French government.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 17:44
  • A more comprehensive answer would dig up evidence on the context of the 2004 law, elaborate on the Babilou cases and a few related developments and perhaps locate some literature on the broader debate on secularism in France (many books have been published on this topic in France over the last 20-30 years, around the 100-year anniversary of the 1905 law and then again when the hijab ends up in the news for one reason or another). Opinion polls or media analysis could be relevant too but all that is beyond what I am able to provide at this time
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 17:53

Is there evidence that these bans were intended to specifically target Muslims?

Definitely: a cursory reading of the Wikipedia pages cited by OP provides plenty of evidence.

So from a strict factual point of view the answer is contained in the question, but I'll assume that OP is interested in the broader political context of these laws.

The 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State

This law established state secularism in France. The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church.

This law was intended to specifically target Catholics ;)

There is no way to understand how religion is integrated to society in France without grasping the essence of this law:

  • Freedom of conscience. Everybody is entitled to practice their religion (or absence thereof), and the state guarantees this right.
  • The state is neutral religion-wise. This means that it does not promote any religion (or absence thereof), and therefore no religion is advantaged or disadvantaged.

This fundamental law is the basis of secularism in France, but it is vastly misunderstood abroad and even by many people in France. In particular, the neutrality of the state is often misinterpreted or over-interpreted: recently some voices argue for France to adopt a stronger/stricter version of secularism (sometimes pretending that this was what the original law intended), considering that the state should not only be neutral in its public institutions (administrations, schools, army, etc.), but also ban signs of religion from the public space all together. There is a strong divide over this idea: the far right defends it (arguably as a politically acceptable way to target Muslims), the rest of the political landscape is divided. In particular the left wing tends to defend the original meaning of the law in general, but there are some debates mostly related to whether women freely choose or are coerced to wear covering clothe.

One can say that the 2004 ban on conspicuous religious symbols in public schools stretches the 1905 law, but is still consistent with its spirit. The idea is that schools have to be neutral to avoid young minds being influenced one way or another: while the original law imposed neutrality on teachers and public servants in general, this law extends neutrality to students themselves. Yet this moderate "extension" marks the start of a growing trend towards the stricter version of secularism.

Progression of far right ideas

The Rassemblement National far right party (formerly Front National) keeps progressing decade after decade, but so far fails to convince a majority of voters. Some far right ideas have sadly become mainstream, in particular the idea that immigration is a problem in need of a solution (historically immigration was not always seen negatively in France). The "Great replacement" conspiracy theory also seems to have some success, showing that there are fears related to the changing demographics of the country and what it means in terms of cultural identity (these fears propagate even in French literature).

The success of far right ideas have progressively propagated to some parts of the right wing, and Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2007 was clearly courting far right voters. Proposed by his government, the 2010 ban on face-covering was transparently pandering to far right ideas by targeting the very few women wearing a full burqa in France (less than 2000 out of 5 millions of Muslims). This law was definitely going much further than the original meaning of the 1905 law, and corresponds to the recent "stronger secularism" trend described above. The law was written neutrally as banning face covering in general, but there was little doubt about the main target (ironically Covid19 made face covering recommended and sometimes even mandatory, leading to a curious paradox: currently, face covering is both mandatory and forbidden in France).

The 2016 burkini bans on the beach proceeded from a similar logic, except that they never had any legal basis: any junior law student could have predicted that the bans would be cancelled, as it was obvious from the start that a mayor's power to make laws about clothing items is very limited due to freedom of expression. Despite the important international coverage for these highly questionable bans, it's important to note that such bans were taken only in a few cities, usually by far right or right-wing mayors. It was never anywhere near a national law.

It is worth mentioning that the wave of IS-inspired terrorist attacks in France in the past 5 years certainly helped the proponents of "stronger secularism": these attacks are perceived as against secularism (they are), causing a defensive reaction to make French secularism stronger. Unsurprisingly they are also used as an argument by the far right to restrict immigration.

Specifics of French society

One point difficult to disentangle in these question is the part of basic racism versus the part of enlightened societal choice. It's important to understand that France is culturally a normative society: as opposed to the Anglo-saxon co-existence model which accepts cultural diversity "as is", in France there is an implicit expectation that communities should interact and evolve with the rest of society. The perceived or real lack of will to integrate is interpreted negatively, and this probably explains some of the political attempts to coerce Muslims into integration. Historically France has often used violence or coercion to impose its norms.

Racism in France has a long and tragic history: slavery, wars of religion (Catholics vs. Protestants), colonization, antisemitism, general anti-immigrants feeling, collaboration with nazism in WW2... Obviously the most recent xenophobic trend is targeted against Black and Arab people who are the descendants of people who immigrated during the past 50 or 60 years from North Africa, many of whom happen to be Muslims. There is little doubt that systemic racism exists in France, that poor economic circumstances (especially high unemployment) and a clear lack of political will have undermined (or broken?) the French integration model.

On the other hand France has the highest proportion of Muslims in the Western world, and in their vast majority they feel well integrated, better than in other countries. Modern French society is a melting pot, it has successfully integrated multiple origins and cultures in the past. There are indications that integration is happening with the descendants of immigrants from North Africa (France has one of the highest rates of exogamy, marrying outside of one's social group).


As usual debates in France tend to be conflictual, and secularism is no exception. I'll end this long explanation with an example of this lively debate: Médine is a French Muslim rapper, in this song he accuses French politicians who promote "strong secularism" of covert racism and undermining the true meaning of the 2005 law.

[update] Three days after writing this answer, Macron gave a good illustration of my point: apparently France and a few other countries in the EU hope to coerce immigrants into integration.

  • I upvoted your answer yesterday. I agree with all of it and it's certainly useful background but is it really an answer to the question asked?
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 9:05
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    @Relaxed I understand your point, I thought about this myself before writing this answer. My reasoning was that the question is "too easy", since OP themselves points to the evidence they're asking about. This interpretation of the question would make it a "bad faith" question imho, even though I think the question is relevant. That's why I chose to interpret the question as more open, as if it was something like: "Does France make laws specifically against Muslims? If yes why?"
    – Erwan
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 12:30

It's pretty much a national level dogwhistle:

France and its Muslims - The Economist, 2004

A hot rentrée?

The start of the school year will rekindle France's impassioned debate about the Muslim headscarf

France's ban on the burqa The Economist, 2010

The war of French dressing

A plan to ban the wearing of the burqa in public stokes new controversy

The Economist explains The Economist, 2014

Why the French are so strict about Islamic head coverings

Case Study: Headscarves and French Schools

The Issue

In the fall of 2004, the French government placed into effect new legislation banning the display of “conspicuous” religious symbols in state schools and hospitals. Thousands of Muslim girls are no longer allowed to wear their headscarves. Likewise, Jewish students are no longer permitted to wear their yarmulkes to public school. This legislation also applies to other religious symbols, such as Christian crucifixes above a certain size.

My emphasis about crucifixes. Crosses "don't count" unless of a certain size. Quite convenient. The yarmulkes had to go - it would have been hard to argue they're either non-religious or inconspicuous. Sikh turbans somehow managed remain tolerated - good for tolerance, but harder for consistency.

So, in other words, France managed to do just fine with religious symbols until the 80-90s, then it felt it had to ban them.

And that despite the oft-cited Laïcité laws dating back to 1905.

Émergence d'une conception extensive de la laïcité (l'islam et la « nouvelle laïcité ») Si jusqu'en 1989 le débat autour de la laïcité avait opposé les militants laïcs à l'Église catholique, c'est l'islam qui devient à partir de cette date « l'objet de toutes les interrogations, voire de toutes les suspicions, à grand renfort médiatique »13. « Le développement de l'islam dans l'Hexagone » se trouve ainsi pris dans « une mutation profonde de la laïcité en France »14.

Emergence of an extensive conception of secularism (Islam and the “new secularism”) If until 1989 the debate around secularism had opposed the secular militants to the Catholic Church, it is Islam which becomes from this date "the object of all the interrogations, even of all the suspicions, with great media support ”13. "The development of Islam in France" is thus caught in "a profound change in secularism in France" 14.

Laicite in its current incarnation is more recent

En mai 2003, le député UMP François Baroin remet un rapport au Premier ministre intitulé, de façon significative, Pour une nouvelle laïcité [Baubérot, 2012, p. 40-43]. Baroin a bien conscience de tourner le dos à la laïcité historique mais, explique-t-il, il faut que la laïcité devienne « une valeur de la droite ». Selon lui, c’est possible car la gauche se montre favorable à la « promotion des droits de l’homme ». Or « à un certain niveau, affirme-t-il, la laïcité [la nouvelle laïcité !] et les droits de l’homme sont incompatibles ».

In May 2003, UMP deputy François Baroin submitted a report to the Prime Minister entitled, significantly, "For a new laïcité" [Baubérot, 2012, p. 40-43]. Baroin is well aware of turning his back on historical secularism but, he explains, secularism must become "a value of the right". According to him, this is possible because the left is in favor of "promoting human rights". But "at a certain level, he says, secularism [the new secularism!] And human rights are incompatible".

Not everyone is coy about it: Marine Le Pen, 2017

Invitée du Grand Jury RTL, Le Figaro, LCI, Marine Le Pen a estimé que "le voile a accompagné la montée de l'islamisme dans notre pays". La présidente du Rassemblement National a également réaffirmé être "pour l'interdiction du port du voile dans l'espace public" sur l'ensemble du territoire. Selon elle, "on se trompe sur la nature de ce qu'est le voile". Depuis la première polémique sur le voile islamique à Creil, en 1989, Marine Le Pen affirme qu'"on a assisté à une explosion du port du voile, y compris de la part de musulmanes qui ne le portaient pas il y a quelques années".

"Le voile est une manière pour les islamistes d'œuvrer à une forme d'appropriation visuelle de l'espace et c'est en cela que c'est une des armes de l'islamisme dans notre pays" a ajouté celle qui a officialisé sa candidature pour la présidentielle de 2022.

Guest of the RTL Grand Jury, Le Figaro, LCI, Marine Le Pen considered that "the veil has accompanied the rise of Islamism in our country". The president of the National Gathering also reaffirmed that she was "for the prohibition of the wearing of the veil in public space" throughout the country.

According to her, "we are mistaken about the nature of what the veil is". Since the first controversy over the Islamic veil in Creil, in 1989, Marine Le Pen affirms that "we have witnessed an explosion in the wearing of the veil, including from Muslim women who did not wear it a few years ago" .

"The veil is a way for Islamists to work for a form of visual appropriation of space and it is in this that it is one of the weapons of Islamism in our country" added the one who formalized her candidacy for the 2022 presidential election.

When I lived in France until the mid 90s, any discussion about the proposed laws fully started out from the basic understanding that it was Muslim symbols that were problematic. Whether a ban was a good or bad thing depended on each person's point of view. Also, back then, the target was not the burqa as those basically weren't on the public radar - full-covering is a typically repressive Saudi idea and wasn't popularize with French Muslims until later.

I have zero problem with forbidding full face coverings like burqas when there is a valid safety consideration behind it, such as having a proper driver's license, entering banks etc... But a veil is not a burqua.

And veils weren't always a no-no in Western ladies garb. La Croix, Le voile dévoilé, 2017

(paywall depends on Javascript - disable it for full article)

Si le proverbe prétend que « l’habit ne fait pas le moine », le voile fit, lui, longtemps la femme respectable. Dans une passionnante enquête mêlant histoire religieuse et histoire des mœurs, histoire des femmes et de la mode, l’historienne italienne Maria Giuseppina ­Muzzarelli retrace l’histoire du voile dans l’Occident chrétien.

If the proverb claims that "clothes don't make the man", the veil made a respectable woman for a long time. In a fascinating investigation combining religious history and the history of manners, the history of women and of fashion, the Italian historian Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli traces the history of the veil in the Christian West.

C’est en reprenant une tradition antique que le christianisme a répandu la prescription de se couvrir la tête, s’appuyant sur la première lettre de Paul aux Corinthiens (11, 2-16). « Le voile a ainsi fait son entrée dans le monothéisme, immédiatement interprété comme élément distinctif du genre féminin et symbole de soumission des femmes à l’homme », souligne l’historienne.

It was in reviving an ancient tradition that Christianity spread the prescription of covering the head, drawing on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (11: 2-16). "The veil thus made its entry into monotheism, immediately interpreted as a distinctive element of the feminine gender and a symbol of the submission of women to men," underlines the historian.

You can't really talk to someone about those laws without Islam being mentioned. Not Christianity, not Judaism. In fact, whenever people remark that, well, religious symbols include the cross, others try to argue that crucifixes are out of scope, somehow.

This is certainly not me expressing sympathy for fundamentalist Islam and its oppressive and regressive xenophobia and intolerance.

But Muslims as a whole have a fairly valid reason to feel under pressure. Far better to call upon moderate Muslims to ostracize, denounce and inform on their extremist brethren. Far better to shut down any mosques promoting Salafism rather than these blunt instruments.

Instead blunt laws that don't differentiate between normally pious Muslim practices and the more extreme doctrinal additions like burqas that come from Salafist doctrine fuel resentment and paranoia.

Are burqas oppressive? Hard to really argue otherwise, but it would be less divisive to presume innocence until guilt was proven and have legislation specifically aimed at husbands and family forcing women to wear them. Let Islamists argue that coercing women is for their own good.

Should burquas go entirely? Perhaps, but that would be easier to argue if there was more tolerance for what are relatively minor choices in religious attire.


this is an extremely touchy subject to talk about right now. I get it. It's unpopular to argue for religious liberty when a very small minority commits acts of terrorism. But France is not being perceived as neutral by Muslims, many of whom live in France.

To paraphrase Mao, The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.. This is making the sea bigger.

  • The second paragraph is a bit rude.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 3:55
  • Agreed, 1st, about whistles is controversial enough. Withdrawn. I have no illusions about my answer. In this particular moment of what's happening in France, and Europe in general, it can seem wrong to stand up for religious liberties, esp. for a religion which has a tiny minority that perpetrates atrocious acts. To me however, this is making a bigger sea for the fish to swim in. Thank you for suggesting an edit. Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 4:45
  • Thanks. BTW, one of your block quotes is misgendering Marine le Pen.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 5:14
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Personally, I downvoted your answer because I think it's just bad: too long, full of irrelevant commentary and self-serving posturing, and short on the actual evidence the OP was asking for. If anything, I think your defense of religious liberties or criticism of Islam-bashing is full of unnecessary caveats like prefacing it with a ritualized denunciation of “fundamentalist Islam” throwing in as many adjectives as possible. That's also what's expected of anybody associated with Islam before talking in the media and it's toxic.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 9:11
  • The edit completely fails to address the objections raised. Until you address those instead of beating straw men, the down votes will stand.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:13

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