The latest gains for the fascist Front National (FN) come against a backdrop of years of attacks on Muslims without real opposition.
Ten years ago this month a law was passed banning religious signs in schools. It was a racist and sexist law against girls wearing a hijab.
The argument from the political establishment was that school is a sacred place from which politics and religion must be excluded. In the context of the “war against terror” and of a denial of colonial crimes, France was launching a crusade against any expression of oppressed minorities.
Expelling girls from school was a denial of the right to express their identity. Forced unveiling was a reactivation of a practice developed in colonial Algeria.
The only people who opposed this law were anti-racist groups, a minority within the far left, local women organising solidarity and schoolgirls resisting individually.
Some 47 girls were expelled in the first year, including three Sikhs. It is hard to know how many girls have been marginalised from the school system, not to mention the harm done to building their future.
The law has even led to caps and hats being prohibited, and girls being harassed because their skirts were too long, or too short. Every pupil associated with Muslims is considered as a danger, especially in poor suburbs.
This state attack caused deep division within society, effectively questioning the right of Muslim women to appear in public spaces.
A law was passed forbidding women from wearing the niqab in public. Another stopped women in hijabs from helping out in school outings. Since then every time the right for equal treatment has been raised within public debate it has been denied.
In 2009 the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) stood Ilham Moussaid as a local election candidate in Avignon. She was attacked for wearing the hijab.
Behind the veil, her persecutors—the right wing media, politicians and intellectuals—were also attacking the
anti-capitalist ideas she was fighting for. As with other NPA activists, she fought for the unity of her class and the defence and self organisation of the oppressed whatever their race, gender, or religion.
But the organisation was too divided to stand clearly behind her. The stakes were high, and that failure weakened Muslims’ and women’s rights. It also weakened a left unable to understand that fascists such as the Front National are building on state Islamophobia.
Now, attacks on Muslims, lesbians, homosexuals, Jews and anti-fascists come thick and fast and resistance to Islamophobia is deeply divided and weakened.
A rise in reactionary ideas meant a battle of interpretation of the 2004 banning law among these movements.
Feminism and secularism have both been misused to cover for Islamophobia, although some feminist and Muslim women’s organisations are maintaining the fight against this.
Other organisations focus only on anti-racism, rejecting women’s liberation and proclaiming conservative values of the family. The real issue about the hijab is a woman’s right to choose.
That is why the role of networks around LGBT campaign Act-Up, libertarians, and anti-capitalists is vital. We need unity for equal rights for Muslims, women, LGBT and disabled people. It is a real danger to separate or counterpose every single struggle in the name of autonomy or a cultural specificity between whites and non-whites.
Some local groups are inspiring, such as “International Women’s Day for all women”, which held a successful protest uniting women wearing the hijab, sex workers, transgender women and more.
There is also a popular collective of women from the poor area of Seine-Saint-Denis called “Women in Struggle” which stands against anti-lesbian bigotry and Islamophobia.
The demonstrations against racism around France last Saturday were organised by a new generation that is against Islamophobia, which is promising. Rather than try convince those who turned to reactionary ideas, we have to give voice to those who are horrified by the rise of fascist ideas.