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Inside France’s Growing Identity War

In the ongoing headscarf fracas, many hardliners are in fact leftists.

Union president at Paris-Sorbonne University Maryam Pougetoux (Str/AFP/Getty Images)

Until recently, Maryam Pougetoux, 19, was an ordinary student at Paris IV, one of the Sorbonne’s campuses, where she studies literature. She is president of the local chapter of France’s student union, UNEF—an important institution in France. She is also Muslim, and wears a hijab.

On May 12, Pougetoux appeared on French television channel M6 to discuss some of the protests the student union has been organizing over the country’s educational system. Within an hour, Laurent Bouvet, a political scientist and self-proclaimed public intellectual, posted a screenshot of Pougetoux’s interview on his Facebook page. “At UNEF, [the intersectional fight against discrimination] is well underway. The president of the UNEF says so,” he wrote sarcastically—a jab at a concept embraced by certain French activist circles but overwhelmingly rejected by the country’s mainstream. Shortly thereafter, essayist Celine Pina wrote on Facebook that Pougetoux exemplified the Muslim Brotherhood’s “infiltration of student unions,” perverting their history of advocating for women’s rights.

The posts went viral, unleashing a national controversy that has dragged on since, dominating media coverage and even eliciting response from top government officials. Pougetoux—who was even caricatured for a new issue of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—has become the latest subject of France’s ongoing and intensifying battle over national identity.

You might expect, given their rejection of the hijab, that Bouvet and Pina belong to the far right. Yet in the battle over how to accommodate France’s Muslim population, the largest in Europe, a certain faction of the left has been among the most vocal in embracing a hardline Republicanism and restrictive vision of secularism that separates religion from public life—a narrow, and some argue flawed, interpretation of what the French call laïcité.

Laïcité is rooted in a memory of the French Revolution, when the Catholic Church acted as an anti-revolutionary, pro-monarchy force. Eventually, this sense of secularism as a central principle of any French republic led to the 1905 law that separates Church and State, mandating state neutrality toward religions and the religious neutrality of public employees. But since the 1980s, many politicians and intellectuals have reinterpreted laïcité to confine all displays of religion to the private sphere. A 2004 law that bans conspicuous religious signs in public schools exemplified that shift. The country likes to see itself as a colorblind community defined by political citizenship, not ethnicity or religion, and scoffs at “Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism.” Students’ display of their religious identities could lead to proselytizing and interfere with the school’s ability to transmit Republican values, the 2004 law’s architects argued. While this law doesn’t apply to university students like Pougetoux, her critics have drawn on its theoretical underpinnings.

A wave of terrorist attacks beginning in 2015, many committed by the children or grandchildren of immigrants from former colonies, has deepened national anxiety over French Muslims. Social media’s echo chambers have given the issue particularly hysterical and toxic undertones. A 2016 survey indicates that the majority of the French population wildly overestimates the size of the Muslim community—31 percent, four times larger than the reality. Radio shows and op-eds asking whether Islam is “compatible with the Republic” are prolific; a February survey indicates that nearly half of the population doesn’t think it is. In a televised interview from April, President Emmanuel Macron said the headscarf was “not compatible with the civility of our country.”

Pougetoux is only the most recent young French Muslim to be demonized by figures on the left and right—not for questioning the Republic or its values, but for wearing a sign associated with her faith. In February, the media fixated on Mennel Ibtissim, a candidate on the TV singing contest “The Voice,” who performed her own rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—in English and Arabic—with her hair covered in a turban. Trolls dug into her social media posts and found that, when she was 18, she had defended a common conspiracy theory suggesting the 2016 Nice truck attack that killed 86 was staged. Pina and media personalities across the political spectrum insisted that Ibtissim was an Islamist cog seeking to “normalize” the headscarf in France.* She was ultimately pressured to withdraw from the show.

But Pougetoux, perhaps because she represented a student union in a country where unions hold particular sway and are an important element of French protest culture, struck a particularly sensitive nerve, and her case reverberated to the highest echelons of government. Marlène Schiappa, President Macron’s minister for gender equality who made headlines with her theatrical reading of The Vagina Monologues, called Pougetoux’s hijab “proof of religion’s grip” and “a form of promotion of political Islam.” Appearing on French TV news station BFMTV, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb likened her to the “youth that are attracted to the Islamic State,” and said her presence in UNEF showed the need to foster a “moderate Islam to oppose this radical Islam.” “Some sort of veil,” he admitted when pressed by the anchor, might be okay, but “indeed not the full veil that Pougetoux wears.” He went on, “My mother, when she went to church, would wear a sort of veil—and perhaps yours did the same—and that was a sign, a religious sign, but not a voluntary marker of identity to show that you are different from French society.”

The minister’s statements drew immediate criticism. “It was a deliberate attempt to set the stage for further legislation to control Muslims’ visibility,” Muslim activist Yasser Louati told me. In an interview with Buzzfeed, Pougetoux herself called Collomb’s remarks “pathetic” and “violent,” suggesting that, based on his logic, France might start measuring women’s headscarves. Her hijab has “no political function,” she said, stressing that her religious views do not interfere with her ability to represent students’ interests. Others pointed out that Pougetoux, as a student and union representative who appeared on national television, evidently does not adhere to the literalist interpretations of Islam that might confine her to a role of subordination.

But others, even in criticizing the vicious response to Pougetoux, sympathize with the idea that ostensible displays of religion might clash with French union culture. Omero Marongiu, an author and scholar of Islam, who is himself Muslim—he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s chapter in France from 1993 to 2004—also criticized Schiappa and Collomb’s remarks. “The idea that, because she wears the veil, she can’t be anything other than Muslim, is problematic,” he told me. Still, he considers it “legitimate to ask a Muslim woman who wears the hijab about her convictions, notably if she represents a union,” he said. “She needs to be able to diffuse ideas that are consistent with the fundamental values that UNEF has defended,” notably regarding gender equality and gay rights, he said, recalling the spate of Muslim associations that came out against gay marriage when it was being debated in 2013. “It shouldn’t be done in the stigmatizing terms Bouvet uses, though.”

This kind of hedging outrages activists such as Louati, who lambasted the reflex that question Pougetoux’s values, regardless of what institution she’s representing. “Why even ask her? How can you assume what she believes? Because she wears a headscarf, she is automatically suspicious?” Setting up automatic hurdles for anyone wearing a veil undermines women like Pougetoux’s credibility, he argued, and distracts from “why she was being interviewed in the first place: the students’ mobilization against new reforms.”

As the reflex Louati criticized becomes a fixture of mainstream debates on Islam, a new generation of activists pushing back against religious or ethnic discrimination is gaining momentum. That includes, among others, Lallab, a Muslim feminist organization, or Afro-feminist groups and education unions that have called for “non-mixed” meetings—spaces reserved to people of color, where they can discuss their experiences of discrimination. But they often find their efforts curtailed. In an unprecedented move last December, the Education Ministry sued a student union that tried to set up meetings for students of color. Sociologists at a handful of universities have organized conferences on intersectionality and Islamophobia—notions the establishment rejects. While their mere existence attests to the debate’s evolution, several have been canceled under political pressure.

“My generation was quiet,” said sociologist Nacira Guénif, 59, recalling a reflex to “apologize” for non-French origins. “I’d enter a room and say, quietly, my name is Nacira, but it’s okay, don’t worry,” she laughed. “There’s a realization that that strategy didn’t work, and the establishment is afraid.”

The French model’s staunchest defenders often classify these activists as “identitarians” who sow division, in the same way Collomb, the interior minister, denounced Pougetoux’s headscarf as a sign of “difference.” “They ask, why do you focus on my whiteness, to raise this wall between us? The answer is that the wall is already there,” Guénif added. “France is a multicultural society that doesn’t think of itself as multicultural.”

Louati acknowledges that new movements are gaining visibility on social media, but fears the government’s fierce response—and “a rightward shift in public opinion”—will undermine progress. “As an activist I’d like to see these movements translate into political victories, outside of the Internet bubble. And so far the reality for minorities isn’t even going backward—it’s getting worse.”

*This sentence has been corrected to reflect that Bouvet was not one of the media personalities to use the term “normalize” in this controversy.