By Ugo Palheta
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Civil war in France

This article is over 5 years, 11 months old
After a summer of burkini bans, Ugo Palheta argues that France's ruling class is waging a strategic offensive against Muslims - with "socialist" prime minister Manuel Valls leading the charge
Issue 416

France’s highest constitutional court has overturned the burkini bans brought in by over 30 mayors in France through the month of August. Most of these mayors belong to the centre-right party Les Republicaines (LR), but also some to the fascist Front National and the governing Labour-type Socialist Party (PS).

Summoned by the Human Rights League (LDH) and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), the court found in particular that the bans “seriously and clearly illegally restrict fundamental liberties — the freedom to come and go, freedom of conscience and personal freedom”. But it would be wrong to imagine that the racist offensive is over. It will continue, backed by a de facto political front stretching right from the government to the FN and taking in LR.

Having already given his support to the mayors in question, prime minister Manuel Valls immediately reacted. Soon after the constitutional court announced its decision, he declared that it “didn’t end the debate”. He went on that “to denounce the burkini is in no way to question a personal freedom. There is no freedom that closes women in. It is to denounce a deadly, retrograde Islamism.”

What is Valls saying with these declarations? Certainly not that he cares about women’s rights. What this declaration says is simply that the battle is far from over — and for the most part that it won’t be played out on a judicial terrain. As in the 1990s and 2000s, a political and ideological offensive has already begun. Its objective is simple: to accelerate stigmatisation, discrimination and segregation, specifically targeting the millions of Muslims who live in France.

The constitutional court decision is a victory, but a partial one. It doesn’t overturn 15 years of Islamophobic laws and decrees. And even for the burkini ban it can only bring provisional, temporary respite. In 1994 the same court ruled against a college that tried to change its regulations to ban religious symbols. A few years earlier in 1989 it had specified that “in schools, students wearing signs to show their religious identity isn’t in itself incompatible with the principle of secularism, insofar as it constitutes the exercise of freedom of expression and manifestation of religious belief.”

But we know what happened ten years later. After an enormous intellectual and media campaign, centre-right president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin managed to impose the draconian and racist law of 15 March 2004. It banned the wearing of headscarves in all state schools. In the name of a law that claimed to liberate them, dozens of female students were excluded from state school and sometimes from school altogether, and thousands more were forced to submit to this new legislation.

For Chirac and Raffarin to arrive at such a “victory” took years of ideological work. This work sought not only to redefine secularism but also to constitute the wearing of headscarves — and by extension, Islam and Muslims — as a problem.


The con was hardly subtle, focusing on headscarves in schools at a time when governments were drastically cutting back state school funding. It worked, however, for at least two reasons. Firstly, it built upon a structural racism that characterises French society, a particular form of systematic racism towards the descendants of the people once colonised by France. Secondly, the ideological terrain had been actively prepared. Muslims had been built up as a threat to state education — and to the universal values that state education is falsely claimed to embody.

Valls is clearly carrying forward this dynamic of islamophobia. Like every professional French politician, he likes to keep referring to the values of the “Republic”. It’s in the name of Republican “coexistence” that he summons Muslims to “help the Republic” under pain of seeing it get “harder and harder” to guarantee the free exercise of their religion.

But there is no doubt that in a few short years he has become one of the main agents of a civil war. It’s a low intensity, undeclared war, certainly, but a war nonetheless — one that combines the characteristics of a class war and a colonial war. This war seeks to break the resistance of the oppressed and the potential solidarities that can be built between them. It takes both ideological and military forms. The state of emergency announced after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and repeatedly extended since, has allowed for an even further tightening of repression in the poorer suburbs. This has meant increased racial profiling for police stops, more house arrests, raids and in sum more racist and arbitrary policing.

The death in police custody of 24-year-old Adama Traoré in Val d’Oise to the north of Paris on 19 July was a reminder of what has for decades been a daily reality — police killings of black people and Arabs, which always go unpunished.

This war takes as its target Muslims and the people of the suburbs, but also the Roma. In 2013 Valls earned himself a trial for incitement to racial discrimination over his speech that aimed to justify the “respectful but particularly firm” destruction of camps. He claimed that “these populations have ways of life that are extremely different to our own” and are “clearly in conflict” with local populations. “It’s delusional to think that we can solve the problem of Roma populations through integration alone,” he went on. There could be “no solution but to progressively dismantle the camps and drive these populations to the border”.

These words are not without consequence. Apart from being tightly bound up with racist policing, they construct figures of an enemy within. They lay the ground for outbursts of racism by giving confidence to the most racist elements of the population, whether organised in far-right parties or not. In Calais migrants are regularly kidnapped and beaten, sometimes even left for dead. In Marseilles a Roma camp was recently attacked with Molotov cocktails.


In Sisco in the island of Corsica the media talk of a “brawl” in August. The next day a crowd of hundreds went into Lupino — a poor area with a high immigrant population on the outskirts of Corsica’s capital Bastia — shouting “This place is ours”. They attacked and hospitalised a North African man who had already suffered violence the day before. Following death threats, he decided to flee the island that had been his home for 13 years.

The direct link between the racist campaigns led by barons of local politics around the burkini, the support of Valls for their bans, and these racist acts is undeniable.

Valls clings as tightly as he can to the possessing class. They want to make workers accept the kind of neoliberal therapy that chancellor Gerhard Schroeder imposed in Germany in the early 2000s. And Valls knows that the Work Law his government pushed through in the face of strikes and protests this spring won’t be enough.

On the contrary, the movement of this spring showed once more the depth of defiance from the majority of people to the neoliberal project of both PS and LR — and more profoundly of the French bourgeoisie. This movement took radical forms that could signal a process of generalised insubordination yet to come.

All this underlines the crisis of hegemony which has been eating away at the French ruling class for a decade. Today we see it culminate in an authoritarian dynamic that is deepening in the poor suburbs and being extended to social movements. Protesters have been arbitrarily arrested, while workers at Goodyear and Air France have been sent down in court for fighting to save their jobs.


“To exist is to exist politically,” wrote the Algerian philosopher and sociologist Abdelmayak Sayad. Racism, particularly in the form of Islamophobia, aims to stop the descendants of the colonies from doing this autonomously. But it also aims to resolve this crisis of hegemony by building up a “national community”, knitted together against Muslims.

One of the central challenges for the months and years ahead is therefore to build and unify a vast movement to contest that project. This mustn’t come at the expense of mobilising around specific demands — against the daily state violence in poor areas, and against Islamophobia that ruins millions of lives and drags behind it an explosion of all kinds of racism. A significant step would be to invite anti-racist activists and families of victims of police violence to speak out when the Goodyear workers go on trial on 19 October. Another would be for the trade union movement to show solidarity with the families of victims of police killings.

But there are no shortcuts. To push back the immense forces that face us we must prepare for a sustained struggle which will continue after the 2017 presidential election.

The judicial battles must be fought, and we can only hail the CCIF and LDH for their work in this area. But a political response is needed in the field of anti-racism, too long left vacant by the radical left and the trade union movement. A political and autonomous anti-racist movement, led by those directly affected by racism, has been building up for some years. Without stepping on its toes, the radical left and the trade union movement must rise to their responsibilities. That is what it will take for fear to change sides.

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