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Hate that has deep roots—Christine Delphy speaks out against Islamophobia

This article is over 7 years, 8 months old
Issue 2521

Sociologist Christine Delphy, one of France’s leading feminists, spoke to Socialist Worker.

The burkini ban has shocked many people, but the racism behind it has roots that go back years. French politicians and the media focusing on Islam is making racism respectable.

Respected authors keep writing books arguing that we have to get rid of foreigners who want to impose an alien way of life on our traditions.

Christine Delphy

Christine Delphy (Pic: Matthisvalerie)

The niqab was banned in 2010. Out of a population of 65 million, it affected around 200 women.Laws restricting what Muslim woman should wear show just how preoccupied the French establishment is with “identity”.

Similarly, the law banning headscarves in schools in 2004 concerned a few hundred disputes that should have been resolved locally.

Just how harsh and disproportionate this law was started to get some of us very worried.

A survey by the author Pierre Tevanian found that school students weren’t at all bothered by their classmates wearing headscarves. They were in favour of acceptance.

But a lot of work was done to shift public opinion.

Some of this was done by right wingers, some by left wing defectors and some by figures who were held up as representing feminism.

They are all obsessed by visible signs of the Muslim religion, but it’s particularly an obsession with Muslim women and girls’ clothing.

They also regularly attack the Muslim religion in itself. The fact that Islam doesn’t have a pope or an official hierarchy who they can address, like most Christian religions do, really bothers them.

So for years there has been talk of creating an “Islam of France” and now the government has set up a “Foundation for Islam of France”.


The man who is to lead it, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, has said things that verge on Islamophobic.

Chevenement also argues that there are two models, the “French model” of cultural assimilation and the “Anglo-Saxon” model of multiculturalism.

Supposedly in Britain and the US different groups live side by side but are segregated, each with their own rules and laws.

Obviously this is completely wrong. Where there is separation, it’s because Muslims are stigmatised, pushed away and excluded.

In a way, this Islamophobia is a continuation of French colonialism. France conquered Algeria in 1830, but Algerians, like people in French Indochina, were never citizens. They were subject to separate laws, full of repressive, discriminatory measures.


This “indigenous law” was only revoked in 1945, the same year that women got the vote.

To this day, French society has never accepted the descendants of people who were colonised. People who were born in France are still considered to be foreigners.

The language used is telling. They are “second generation immigrants”, “third generation immigrants” and so on.

Even at the fourth and fifth generation they continue to be “immigrants”.

This is absurd. An immigrant is someone who was born elsewhere and has just come here—it’s not something that is passed on genetically.

People who were born in France are still considered to be foreigners

They’re told to make themselves invisible, but racism means they are always recognised by the colour of their skin.

Racism has made French people talented at recognising Arabs, even though their skin colour is very similar to many “ethnically French” people.

This phrase, “ethnically French”, is itself a recent invention and it’s meaningless.


White people in France don’t just descend from the Gauls who lived here thousands of years ago.

Centuries of invasions, migrations and mixing make it impossible to separate out a distinctly “French” ethnicity.

Some are more forthright than others about what they mean.

So among the hard right wingers around former president Nicolas Sarkozy it’s even been said that “France is a country of the white race”.

Right winger Nicolas Sarkozy

Right winger Nicolas Sarkozy (Pic: World Economic Forum)

That’s what it’s really about—saying there are the whites and “others”.

For instance, in 2010 Sarkozy’s then-interior minister Brice Hortefeux was at a campaign rally.

A woman activist introduced him to a young man of North African origin, and said it’s alright because “he eats pork and drinks alcohol”.

Pork in school canteens is a raging debate. Muslim children can’t eat pork, so some local authorities offer a pork-free alternative menu.

Others refuse absolutely, saying that in a republic there is one menu.

This gets an incredible amount of space in the media. So there is actually a public debate about French identity posed in terms of whether or not you eat pork or drink alcohol.

There is a fundamental misinterpretation of what secularism is.

Secularism should be about keeping religion from influencing the state, not banishing it out of public space.


That’s why France’s highest court ruled that the burkini bans went against fundamental freedoms that are upheld by the constitution.

The intransigence of the mayors who imposed the bans forced the court to overturn the bans on a case by case basis.

The court will eventually overturn them all, at some cost, and the mayors are accepting that.

So Sarkozy and other right wingers are denouncing this. They’re demanding a law banning the burkini, as if the burkini was an issue of national importance!

Our present government calls itself socialist but takes the same positions as the right.

This probably won’t happen, as it would mean changing the constitution. France has already made itself a laughing stock internationally.

If we rewrote the constitution for the sake of a few dozen burkinis I think we would become a pariah state.

But the Islamophobia will certainly continue now it has got this far.

The main parties all fundamentally use the same discourse as the racist Front National (NF). They distinguish themselves from the NF because it is an electoral competitor, but they all focus on French “identity” and the “nation”.

They say France is the land of the “rights of man”—and that’s what human rights are still called in France.

Whenever I talk to human rights activists about changing it, they say it keeps a link with the language of the French Revolution.

They prefer to refer to something that happened in France more than two centuries ago rather than the rest of the world today.

Our present government calls itself socialist but takes the same positions as the right.

Prime minister Manuel Valls is always harping on about the headscarf being the main problem and his main fight in France.

The situation is difficult, because even among what’s called the “left of the left” there is a hostility to Islam.

It’s hidden behind a veil of anti-religious rhetoric, but it’s very totalitarian.

Some of us have been trying to build opposition for the last 12 years, but with little success.

While some feminists are starting to move from their anti-headscarf positions, they’re relatively few in number.


But we are seeing new groups of Afro-feminists, who look to the Black feminism developed in the US, and organisations that don’t accept white members.

I wish them success, but they could easily face legal challenges.

France is becoming such a messed-up country—we don’t know what the future holds.

The sociologist Said Bouamama wrote a very good article recently, warning that the conditions for a pogrom were being created.

In a sense, the Paris attacks against French civilians by supporters of Isis last November prove that there will be some outlet for this feeling.

France is putting itself at risk. France is acting like it wants a civil war as an excuse to eliminate the Muslims.

I wish I could be more optimistic—but the conditions for a civil war are there.

Further reading:
Said Bouamama spoke out in Socialist Worker after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, available at

Civil War in France by Ugo Palheta in Socialist Review, available at

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