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
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
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.