During a wide-ranging interview with the left-of-center daily Liberation, France's prime minister, Manuel Valls, said he was in favor of a ban on Islamic headscarves on university campuses in the country. The outspoken Valls, a controversial figure within his own Socialist party, has maintained a tough line on the problems of Muslim integration in France.
In the interview, he said he wanted "to be able to demonstrate that Islam" was "fundamentally compatible" with the values of the French Republic. But the jury is still out, he seemed to imply. When pushed on the matter, he said that "certain people don’t want to believe" that Islam can fit into French society and that "a majority of French citizens doubt it, but I’m convinced that it’s possible."
He was firm, however, on where he believed French secularism should supersede religious identity. Valls was asked whether he would be in favor of a headscarf ban at universities.
"It should be done, but there are constitutional rules that make this prohibition difficult," he replied. "We must be uncompromising on the rules of secularism in higher education."
France has some of the strictest laws in Europe on the wearing of Islamic veils and other garb in public. In 2004, headscarves and other religious symbols such as visible crosses and turbans were banned from state schools. In 2011, the then-conservative French government banned the niqab, or full-face veil, from being worn in public.
As Britain's Guardian newspaper reports, many of Valls's colleagues swiftly rejected his suggestion:
"There is no need for a law on the headscarf at university,” said Thierry Mandon, the higher education minister. He said students were adults, and as such they "have every right to wear a headscarf. The headscarf is not banned in French society.”
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the education minister, said she did not support banning headscarves from universities, adding that students were young adults with “freedom of conscience and religious liberty” to do as they please. “Our universities also have a lot of foreign students. Are we going to ban them access because in their culture there’s a certain type of clothing?” she said.
Abdallah Zekri, a member of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, rejected the implication that the majority of the country's Muslims had to prove their ability to be properly French.
“We’re fed up of being stigmatised ... [and] of this populist discourse which is worse than the far-right,” he told a French TV channel, according to the Guardian.
The prime minister's remarks come at a time of renewed debate about the place of Islam in French society, made all the more volatile by the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels by proxies of the Islamic State militant group who were, by and large, radicalized within Europe. Valls frames the security struggle partly as a civilizational clash and pushed to have French jihadists stripped of their nationality.
In 2013, Valls described complaints about Islamophobia as "the Trojan Horse of the Salafists." But he stressed in his interview this week that Sunni fundamentalism did not reflect the views of most French Muslims.
"We must help the Muslims of France to win this cultural battle, to have this collective force against the Islamist ideology that would govern all social and political life," he told Liberation.
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