By Annie Glasser
On Wednesday French Minister for Family, Children, and Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol compared Muslim women who wear traditional head coverings to “American negroes who supported slavery.” Under pressure from media and civil society, Rossignol apologized for her language, but she stands by her message.
Rossignol made the remark in response to a question about the Islamic fashion industry during an interview on BFMTV. Rossignol said retailers—including Dolce & Gabbana, Uniqlo, and H&M—that offer clothing specifically for Muslim women “promote the confinement of women’s bodies.”
This sentiment is not new in France. The 2004 law on secularism and conspicuous religious symbols in schools and the 2011 law prohibiting concealing one’s face in public spaces fueled an ongoing debate about “French identity” in a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and pluralist society. These laws, along with Rossignol’s recent statement, go against internationally recognized rights of freedom of religion and expression. They also contribute to the view that the principle of laïcité (secularism) limits the acceptance of differences and promotes unattainable conformity.
Rossignol’s words on the traditional Muslim head covering bolster the “clash of civilizations” narrative that is pervasive in France. In our recent report, “Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Countering Antisemitism and Extremism in France,” Human Rights First found that marginalization of already-vulnerable groups perpetuates an overall increase in repression, polarization, and intolerance. Excluding these groups from a sense of belonging and inclusion in the national identity can hinder efforts to address racism, antisemitism, and other forms of intolerance.
Rossignol’s statement offers a stark contrast to a remark from President Francois Hollande earlier this year. In response to an antisemitic attack in Marseilles, Hollande deemed it “intolerable” that Jews should not be able to wear a kippah, a traditional head covering, for fear of their safety. This comment prompted many in France to declare that Jews should be free to wear kippot, exemplifying how aggressive laïcité principles are selectively applied.
All people are equally endowed with fundamental rights and freedoms, and the French government is responsible for respecting and protecting these rights for Jews, Muslims, and other groups alike.
Human Rights First supports French civil society in speaking out against Rossignol’s divisive language. As far-right political groups running on xenophobic platforms are gaining momentum in France, it is especially important for the French government to equip civil society with tools to speak out against racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia and promote pluralistic values. The U.S. government should urge the French government to send official messages that uphold tolerance and inclusion, rather than promoting and provoking societal divides.