France’s Crackdown on Religious Garb Expands

The abaya is now banned as well.

POLITICO (“French education minister announces ban on Islamic dress in schools“):

French Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced on Sunday that France will ban the Islamic garment known as the abaya in schools.

“The school of the Republic was built around strong values, secularism is one of them. … When you enter a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the religion of pupils,” Attal said in an interview with French TV channel TF1.

“I announce that [pupils] will no longer be able to wear abaya at school,” he said.

The abaya is a long, flowing dress commonly worn by Muslim women as it complies with Islamic beliefs on modest dress — but it’s also worn by other communities in North Africa and the Middle East. In 2004, France banned religious symbols in schools, including large crosses, Jewish kippahs and Islamic headscarves. But the abaya occupies a gray zone and hasn’t specifically been banned.

Attal, who was appointed in July, announced that he would lead talks in the coming weeks before issuing new “clear nationwide rules” for schools.

The focus on abayas follows a reported increase in girls wearing Islamic clothing in French schools, in a trend that some say is a violation of the country’s secularist values. Last month, President of the National Assembly Yaël Braun-Pivet, who is a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, called for “a totally secular state school” where there is “no ramadan, no abaya, no ostentatious religious signs.”

While some politicians were calling for new legislation to ban religious dress, it appears the government will simply give school principals new guidelines.

Secularism in French schools has always been a hot-button topic with supporters claiming that religion, and Islam in particular, has been encroaching on the public space. Critics, on the other hand, maintain that religious minorities face discrimination in a historically Christian country.

BBC (“France to ban female students from wearing abayas in state schools“) adds this context:

The move comes after months of debate over the wearing of abayas in French schools.

The garment is being increasingly worn in schools, leading to a political divide over them, with right-wing parties pushing for a ban while those on the left have voiced concerns for the rights of Muslim women and girls.

“Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school,” Mr Attal told TF1, arguing the abaya is “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute.”

In 2010, France banned the wearing of full face veils in public which provoked anger in France’s five million-strong Muslim community.

France has enforced a strict ban on religious signs at schools since the 19th Century, including Christian symbols such as large crosses, in an effort to curb any Catholic influence from public education.

It has been updating the law over the years to reflect its changing population, which now includes the Muslim headscarf and Jewish kippa, but abayas have not been banned outright.

The debate on Islamic symbols has intensified since a Chechen refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown students caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, near his school in a Paris suburb in 2020.

The announcement is the first major policy decision by Mr Attal, who was appointed France’s education minister by President Emmanuel Macron this summer at the age of 34.

Al Jazeera (“France to ban wearing abaya dress in schools: Minister“):

France, which has enforced a strict ban on religious signs in state schools since 19th-century laws removed any traditional Catholic influence from public education, has struggled to update guidelines to deal with a growing Muslim minority.


The right and far right had pushed for the ban, which the left argued would encroach on civil liberties.

Unlike headscarves, abayas occupied a grey area and faced no outright ban until now.

The French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), a national body encompassing many Muslim associations, has said items of clothing alone were not “a religious sign”.

Defending secularism is a rallying cry in France that resonates across the political spectrum, from left-wingers upholding the liberal values of the Enlightenment to far-right voters seeking a bulwark against the growing role of Islam in French society.

There was a spate of horrified reaction stories in the Western press when the 2004 bans were enacted and then another wave in 2010 as countries across Europe passed rules requiring, for example, women not cover their faces with veils in certain situations for security reasons. These things offend American sensibilities, in particular, because we have a tradition of near-absolutism on religious and political expression, exemplified by our First Amendment.

The fact that the French have been enforcing a policy of strict secularism in their schools, initially directed at overt displays of Christianity, going back to the 19th century would seem to indicate that this is not primarily motivated by anti-Muslim animus. More than any other great power, at least in the West, France takes what seem to me to be extreme measures to protect its dominant culture via its laws. The French language is ruthlessly safeguarded against loanwords from other languages—especially English. There are even rules for what names are appropriate for boys and girls. This is of a piece with all of that.

FILED UNDER: Education, Religion, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Lounsbury says:

    initially directed at overt displays of Christianity, going back to the 19th century would seem to indicate that this is not primarily motivated by anti-Muslim animus.

    That is complete nonsense.

    This is entirely motivated by anti-Muslim animus as a sub-set of anti-minority animus that F

    Catholic style dress is unremarked but wearing the dress of a visible non-Catholic minority, this provokes bans.

    An abaya – rather vague word in the end – is nothing more than a loose flowing dress (or as Wiki as neutral ref says “a simple, loose over-garment, essentially a robe-like dress“)- so this is really nothing more than essentially an attack on a visible religious minority, sadly a long-tradition in France. Protestants, Jews…. of course post-Vichy uncomfortabl….

    The French language is ruthlessly safeguarded against loanwords from other languages—especially English.

    …. Thus explaining why I do “le shopping ce week-end même, ainsi j’ai enovoyé un e-mail au mall pour trouver des pullovers cools pour mon fils avant la rentrée….” – that is bullshit, the pretence.

    In reality the French government maintains a nicely worded façade – one that is quite good at duping observers as French intellos and officialdom (to the extent there is a difference) rather masters the language of as we say, maquillage, to render beautiful via appeal to grand ideas and precepts the ugly.

  2. drj says:


    That is complete nonsense.

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it is complete nonsense.

    Laïcité is a fairly fundamental concept in French politics that is, in fact, rooted in 19th-century debates on the position of the Catholic Church in French society.

    But it is, of course, also true that nowadays laïcité is a very convenient stick to hit Muslims with. I have very little doubt that the abaya ban is a part of that rather than being a principled stance on maintaining religious neutrality in education.

  3. drj says:

    More generally speaking, the French have a very weird relationship with racial minorities.

    For instance, Toussaint Louverture is nowadays commemorated as a great Frenchman in the Panthéon.

    Still, this isn’t exactly insincere – even though it betrays a remarkable and (I would say) wilful blindness.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    @Lounsbury: I spent several years of my life going through the French school system. I wouldn’t say that this activity is “entirely motivated by anti-Muslim animus”. France has its ideas of what it considers a “proper” French education (complete with acceptable culture) and doesn’t take kindly to any subset of the population that won’t play along, whether the protestation comes from Islamic groups, Catholic groups, or whoever.

    (I still remember learning how to write with dip pens and inkwells, and drawing careful diagrams in my school notebook showing the locations on the vineyard slopes indicating premiere cru, deuxieme cru, and troisieme cru. Oh, and learning arias from Mozart for music class.)

  5. gVOR10 says:

    @drj: Haiti was crippled from the get go by ruinous debt extorted from Haiti at gunpoint to compensate their ex masters. A dual debt, as they were not only forced to accept the debt, they were forced to borrow from the French the money to pay it. I don’t imagine elevation of Louverture to the Pantheon has led to any serious consideration of reparations.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    The effect is anti-Muslim, but it is also government-enforced liberation of women. Good for them.

    I like the fact that the French are still obnoxiously defensive about their culture. I like the results. The world is becoming too homogenized, too Americanized. I die a little inside when I see Starbucks in Paris.

    @grumpy realist:

    Damn, I’d have enjoyed some background on French viniculture. All I got from 3 years in French schools were stories about Amadou, a goat FFS, a reverence for bread, indifference to corporal punishment and excellent penmanship with the dipping in inkwell thing. The penmanship has suffered terribly over the years from my indifference, exacerbated by a need to autograph books quickly. French schools taught me defiance to teachers, the art of skating by on testing skill, (Number 1 almost every month) and the one thing that stuck: my love for a crispy/soft/warm baguette. Which, frankly, was more than I ever took away from American schools.

  7. Kazzy says:

    “…it is also government-enforced liberation of women. Good for them.”

    What of women who, I dunno, want to wear these things? How liberated are they?

    What is the response within France? I am trying to be mindful of not applying just an American sensibility to this but I’m curious what people in France thing, both within the communities directly impacted and others. I’m sure it’s not a monolithic response.

  8. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    but it is also government-enforced liberation of women.

    Forcibly protecting people against themselves rarely ends well.

    This is also what the anti-abortion crowd perceives itself as doing, by the way.

    And I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t see the headscarf as “just a piece of cloth.”


    What is the response within France?

    It doesn’t exactly help with the race riots. (Although, I am sure, police violence is an even bigger contributor to those.)

  9. CSK says:


    “Forcibly protecting people against themselves seldom ends well.”

    I had an ultra-left-wing acquaintance who used to say that the first duty of the government was to protect people from themselves. He also cheated on his taxes. Granted, he was a real jerk.

  10. Grumpy realist says:

    @drj: Well, “forcibly protecting people against themselves” has also been used to describe everything ranging from inoculations to seatbelts/helmet/drunk driving laws to government agencies such as the FDA.

    (My own view is that if you want to be stupid about your own life, go ahead, but as soon as your stupidity impacts on anyone else we have the right to come down on you like a pile of rectangular-shaped building things. And having to do things like scrubbing your brains off the road because you were too determined to not wear a helmet and turn yourself into a meat crayon is, in fact, impacting “other people”)

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    The anti-abortion people are liars, they’ve always been liars. Remember when they would never, ever, under any circumstance go after women cuz they were the victims? Been telling them for 50 years they were liars.

    We protect people from taking dangerous jobs with workplace safety rules. We try to stop people committing suicide. We require people to wear seatbelts and motorcycle helmets. WE forcibly liberate children from working in factories. We have a lot of laws that protect people from themselves. Some work, some don’t. The French burka ban seems to have held up.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:


    What of women who, I dunno, want to wear these things? How liberated are they?

    Unfortunately in an authoritarian, strictly patriarchal religion, it’s hard to determine whether these women have a choice. I’m done with religious nuts of all stripes. How much longer do we have to go on pretending that religion is anything but a con?

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    How much longer do we have to go on pretending that religion is anything but a con?

    Depends on who “we” is. If “we” is people of a mind similar to some famous YA author, the battle is already one. If “we” represents people of a mind similar to some famous YA author imposing their view on others…

    Well, isn’t that what you don’t like about religious people to begin with?

  14. Lounsbury says:

    @drj: It is complete bullshit, full stop. I am more than aware of the history, having both the current family and the familiale roots an with certain of nos ancestres, les gaulois… Modern laïcité is nothing more maquillage put on the nasty pig of ethno-religioius prejudice.

    From the country where have a specific southern mediterranean skin tone and un certain look melangé gets one called sale arabe in a super-market, quite liberally.

    Modern “laicité” is nothing more than the French intellos maquillage, dressed up in pretence and using the old excuse [one based on a real political and state power of a certain structure of the Catholic church] on a much darker reality.

    @grumpy realist: well yes, France has quite the tradition of effacing any minority deviation, be it provençal or catharism or protestantism etc.

    That does not change the fact of this is nothing more than anti-minorité reaction, dressed up in elegant intello justifications – but lacking even the very discussable rational of the 19th century origin at least aimed then at Church with a shadow power, an institutional power.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The effect is anti-Muslim, but it is also government-enforced liberation of women. Good for them.

    It is no such thing – there is no “liberation” in banning a loose flowing dress because it is culturally labelled as foreign. It is neither Hidjab (the hair covering) nor Niqab (the face covering), it is a bloody loose flowing garmet that if worn by a person of the Correct Catholic religion then becomes an à la mode statement of freedom from the imposition of the male gaze or simply because it is quite comfortable in the bloody heat.

    To call that “liberation” by penalising what is either merely a fashion choice or a cultural choice (hardly religious in fundamentals given the same abaya dress is worn equally by the Christian Arab women in traditional areas, it making perfectly good and sane climactic clothing choice) is nothing more than being a dupe for bigotry – ugly religious bigotry if not the participation in the same.

    @Michael Reynolds: A pathetic statement of rather ignorant religious bigotry with a strong dash of neo-colonialist condescenation, save the poor indigenes from themselves…

  15. gVOR10 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Kevin Drum had a good take last week. He noted that there are 4,300 religions in the world. The only difference between the religious and you, me, and Kevin is that the religious don’t believe in 4,299 religions and we don’t believe in 4,300. Hardly seems something they should make a big deal about.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The abaya neither picks my pockets nor breaks my bones. Really, wtf part of MYOB is so hard for the French to grasp?

    Also, mark it on your calendar, I agree with @Lounsbury.