School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

Muslim women demonstrate in favor of the right to wear the hijab in Strasbourg, France. (Reuters)
Updated 15 October 2019

School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

  • Far-right politician Julien Odoul asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to a regional parliament to remove her headscarf
  • The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism

PARIS: A new row over secularism and the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public buildings has erupted in France after a far-right politician asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to remove her headscarf.
The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism in the public sector, including schools.
Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage when he posted a video on Twitter of him confronting a woman who accompanied pupils last Friday to the regional parliament in Bourgogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.
Citing “secular principles” in the wake of the killings in Paris this month of four police staff by a radicalized convert to Islam, he insisted the woman, whose son was among the group, remove her headscarf.
Members of the RN then walked out of the chamber before issuing a press statement denouncing “an Islamist provocation.”
But many, including regional parliament speaker Marie-Guite Dufay, criticized Odoul’s actions, saying neither the law of the country nor the rules of the chamber prohibited a member of the public wearing a headscarf.
Dufay denounced a “surge of hatred” and what she described as “undignified behavior” on the part of a lawmaker.
With the RN playing up the issue, the controversy has exposed divisions within the centrist ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron which is keenly aware Marine Le Pen’s faction is its chief political foe.
Even the country’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer seemed unable to pick a side, stressing Sunday that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children,” while saying “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society” because of “what it says about the status of women, what it says about our values.”
Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also weighed in, saying it was important to allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not, as this promoted “inclusivity.”
But Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire came to the defense of “a culture in which religion remains in the intimate, private sphere and does not have a place in (the) public sphere.”
And Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin added: “I would prefer that women in the Republic, in France, do not wear a headscarf.”
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament he was opposed to any kind of new law specifically targeting what should be worn on school trips.
The controversy is the latest in France over face and body-covering garments which many perceive as inappropriate in a secular country while others argue the garments allow Muslim women to be active participants in French society.
The French state and church were officially separated by law in 1905 to give form to the concept of secularism rooted in the 1789 French Revolution.
In 2004, the government prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religions symbols in public schools and banned the hijab — a garment that covers a woman’s hair but leaves her face exposed — from classrooms and government offices.
The country with Europe’s largest Muslim population is also deeply divided over the body-concealing “burkini” swimsuit, with opposition to the garment forcing the closure of some swimming pools earlier this year in the midst of a heatwave.
Also this year, French sports retailer Decathlon was forced by public pressure to back down from a plan to sell a runner’s hijab in France.
An opinion poll released on Monday found that two in three French people are in favor of prohibiting parents accompanying kids on school trips from wearing visible religious symbols.
France does not officially collect data on religious affiliation but is believed to have a Muslim population of just under 10 percent. Not all are observant.
A study published in September by the IFOP polling group found that more than half of Muslim men questioned said they went to the mosque every Friday, compared to about one in five women.
The upper house of parliament, the Senate, will discuss the subject as early as next week, with a committee examining a draft law seeking to “ensure the religious neutrality of people who contribute to the public service of education.”


China mulls its options as Hong Kong descends into chaos

Updated 13 November 2019

China mulls its options as Hong Kong descends into chaos

  • Actions in the semi-autonomous territory were ‘slipping into the abyss of terrorism’
  • ‘When necessary, the People’s Armed Police Force and the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison will back you up’
BEIJING: A sharp escalation of violence in Hong Kong is once again raising the question of how China’s central government will respond: Will it intervene, or allow the chaos to persist?
The Liaison Office, which represents mainland authorities in Hong Kong, said Wednesday that actions in the semi-autonomous territory were “slipping into the abyss of terrorism.” It pointed out that a man was set on fire Monday during an argument with demonstrators, leaving him in critical condition.
On the same day, a police officer shot a protester who was then taken to a hospital, also in critical condition.
The unabating tumult, now in its sixth month, may give China’s ruling Communist Party the justification it needs to take more direct action, analysts said.
“Beijing is hoping that the Hong Kong community will start blaming the protesters and support the restoration of order,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The central government must wait for the right moment to step in, Cabestan said, adding that if China acts before public opinion is fully on its side, it could exacerbate existing discontent.
While the movement began peacefully in June to oppose a now-withdrawn extradition bill, it has been increasingly defined by smaller groups of hard-core demonstrators bent on sowing chaos. Their actions, which have included setting cars on fire and smashing storefronts, have alienated many residents.
The Liaison Office described the act of setting the man on fire as “flagrant terrorism,” and pledged support for Hong Kong authorities taking measures to curb “various illegal acts of violence and acts of terrorism.”
Whereas Chinese authorities previously called the demonstrators “rioters” with behavior “close to terrorism,” they are now calling them “murderers” and tying them more explicitly to terrorism. This label may presage more severe enforcement measures and impact how demonstrators are ultimately prosecuted.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the framework of “one country, two systems,” a policy that promises Hong Kong certain democratic rights not granted to the mainland. But the arrests of pro-democracy activists and booksellers in recent years have raised fears among Hong Kong residents that Beijing is encroaching on the city’s freedoms.
During a key meeting of the party’s Central Committee at the end of October, Chinese leaders proposed establishing and strengthening the “legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security” in special administrative regions like Hong Kong and Macao.
A meeting summary from China’s official Xinhua news agency did not elaborate on what this would entail, but Chinese officials have variously pointed to Article 14, Article 18 and Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s de facto constitution.
Article 14 allows the Hong Kong-based garrison of the Chinese military to help with public order maintenance at the request of the local government. Article 18 states that national laws may be applied in Hong Kong if China’s ceremonial parliament decides that the region is in a “state of emergency” that endangers national unity or security.
“When necessary, the People’s Armed Police Force and the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison will back you up,” the nationalistic Global Times said in an editorial Monday, addressing the Hong Kong police.
Zhang Xiaoming, head of the Cabinet’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said over the weekend that Hong Kong has yet to fulfill Article 23, which stipulates that the city will “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against the central government. These laws should also ban the theft of state secrets and prevent foreign political organizations from conducting political activities in Hong Kong. Beijing has repeatedly accused foreign forces of fomenting the unrest.
Proposing new national security legislation is likely to further inflame the protests, though China may not be opposed to that, said Joseph Cheng, a pro-democracy advocate and retired City University of Hong Kong political scientist.
China has made it clear that it intends to maintain a hard line politically, refusing to make any concessions to protesters while pushing ahead with unpopular security legislation, Cheng said.
A further concern is that Beijing might order the postponement of Hong Kong’s local assembly elections scheduled for Nov. 24, freezing in place the current pro-China makeup of the body and avoiding possible embarrassment for the administration of Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Although Lam has been criticized for a lack of leadership and her inflexibility, she has faithfully carried out Beijing’s will. During meetings last week in Shanghai and Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed support for her work.
At least for now, the central government appears to be leaving enforcement to local authorities, said Ben Bland, a research fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute and author of “Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow.”
This approach allows the party to keep the issue tied to Hong Kong, as opposed to one that requires intervention at a higher level, Bland said, adding that while Beijing has several options for cracking down on the protests, each carries its own risks and could aggravate tensions.
As protesters’ tactics have become increasingly extreme, crippling regular operations in the city and plunging various districts into mayhem, Hong Kong’s government has shifted its focus toward the violence and away from the democratic reforms the movement intended to advocate.
“We all feel very depressed because we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Cheng said.