Under the rhetoric of emancipation, the oppression of Muslim women in France intensified today with the coming into force of the ban on facial coverings in public places.

Woman wears French Tricolor as veilA protest was held today outside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris where women defiantly wore the burqa in public. Excluding items such as sunglasses, the law has been explicitly targeted at Muslim women who wear the burqa and niqab. Two women were arrested, although the police claimed this was because the protest was ‘unauthorised’, not because of what they were wearing.

This law is racist

Kenza Drider, one of the spokespeople of the demonstration, asserted that this was a protest to defend women’s rights: “For me this is women’s liberty, the liberty to wear what I wish and not be punished for it.” Despite the claims of the French government, this law is not about liberating women: it is about racism. An estimated 2,000 Muslim women, out of a population of around 5-6 million French Muslims, wear full facial coverings, yet they have been focused on as a huge ‘problem’ by the French state.

In fact the result of the law has been to create an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust around France’s Muslim community, fuelling Islamophobia. The racist backlash has been felt by Kenza Drider who explains: “When President Sarkozy said: ‘The burqa is not welcome in France’, the president, my president, opened the door for racism, aggression and attacks on Islam.This is an attempt to stigmatise Islam and it has created enormous racism and Islamophobia that wasn’t there before.”

The fascist Front Nationale party has greatly benefited from this climate of fear and hatred, and has accordingly put Islamophobic scare-mongering at the centre of its campaign for the 2012 presidential election. A Le Parisien poll at the beginning of March stated that had the presidential election been held then the FN would likely have won the first round of voting. Such worrying figures demonstrate the racist implications of the law and the lack of an effective fightback against the law.

The rhetoric of emancipation that has been used as ‘cover’ by the government has blinded sections of feminists and left-wingers to the true nature of the law. This has prevented many from uniting with the Muslim community against this attack.

This law will target the poor

It is already becoming clear which Muslim women are most likely to come under attack: the poor. A member of the Synergie police union, Patrice Ribeiro, has explained that the police will be likely to shy away from arresting the super-rich Muslim women in Paris’s luxury department stores, such as Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysees: “In all cases, the forces of order will have to be measured and cautious in their behaviour.”

The targets, then, will be poor women who can ill-afford the potential 150 Euro fine they face if they defy the law, and who already suffer marginalisation by the French state. Ribeiro did suggest that resistance on poor estates in the suburbs might also deter police, which makes it vital that a campaign is launched to make sure this is the case.

The Republic: no friend of women

Taking upon themselves to define the meaning of the Republic, the French government now declares on posters “The Republic lives with its face uncovered”. Quite what right they have to just make-up such ridiculous statements is not clear. Considering the murky corruption scandals the French state has just been exposed for, it is hardly appropriate!

Equally inappropriate is the attempt by the French state to claim feminist credentials. The French state has been notoriously bad at recognising women’s rights. Women in France only got the right to vote after the Second World War, and the right to open a bank account independently of their husband’s consent in 1965. An estimated 1 in 10 French women are victims of domestic violence. And, just as in Britain, women’s bodies are objectified all around, plastered over adverts to sell commodities.

The Republic: no friend of Muslims

All this takes place in the context of the French government’s zealous involvement in the bombardment of Libya. As the ‘war on terror’ drags on and mutates into new forms, Islamophobia remains a key tool in demonising and/or enfantilising the Muslim victims of war.

Islamophobic parties across Europe will be watching what happens in France to see if they can get away with something similar. A ban on face coverings is expected to be passed this year or next in the Netherlands. It is essential that Muslims, socialists, feminists and all fighters against oppression stand in solidarity to stop the spread of this poison.

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.