Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — But for Whom?

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This is the motto of France. It is written in the French constitution under Article 2, and it is the maxim to which the French adhere. The French are proud of this as they believe that their country is a nation that recognizes that all its people are treated with the freedom, fairness, and camaraderie that they deserve. Yet, somehow, this liberty and equality only seems to apply to a select few—the non-Muslim citizens of the republic.

Muslims living in France are treated as second-class citizens. They live in poor conditions in the banlieues, or suburbs, often marginalized both economically and socially. This subordinate treatment has extended to admonition for their way of life—from the way they practice their religion to their outer appearance. Those who don’t practice Islam, however, argue that Muslims shouldn’t be displaying their religion in public because it goes against laïcité, or secularism. Under Article 1 of the French constitution, France is supposed to be a secular state, and as a result, most of France’s policies are based upon this notion. This, however, has led to unfair laws that seem to target Muslims, further isolating this community from French society. The impact of these policies are having a negative effect on perceptions of the West by Muslims outside of France, and it is also affecting the perceptions of those living within the country. It is playing into the narrative of ISIS that the West is waging a war against Islam and that consequently, all Muslims need to unite to annihilate these “evil” forces.

This past summer, numerous towns along the French coast implemented a ban on burkinis—a swimsuit worn predominately by Muslim women. Some of the government officials who set this ban argued that it was done for security purposes after a terrorist attack in the seaside city of Nice. The ban sparked uproar from not only its Muslim citizens but also from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The policy was discriminatory and very blatantly targeted toward Muslims. The ban, however, was short-lived and suspended in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet after a ruling by France’s highest court last August declared it illegal. The court decided the ban infringed upon the freedom of Muslim women and violated human rights. It was, to a certain extent, a victory for these women and the Muslim community.

This isn’t the first time that France passed this type of ban. In 2004, France passed a law that banned all displays of religion from public schools, and in 2011, it passed a law that prohibited people from covering their face in public. These measures were implemented with the idea that religion needs to be banned from public spaces. Religion is seen as something that should be kept private and restricted to the home. Unfortunately, these regulations have affected Muslims the most.

In the past year and a half, France has been grappling with a rise in terrorist activity—from the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters to the Paris attacks last November to the most recent Bastille Day incident in Nice. This increase in terrorism has caused the country to go into panic mode and as such, restrictive measures have been implemented. Strict laws like the most recent burkini ban have been put in place to ensure the safety of the French people. French officials argue that these kinds of policies are what will lessen the amount of attacks from radical Islamic groups. They believe

Tilemahos Efthimiadis, © 2002

Tilemahos Efthimiadis, © 2002

that by “forcing” Muslims to assimilate to French society, they will eventually become “one of them,” a “real” French citizen. However, these new measures are only marginalizing Muslims even further.

The effects of the burkini ban, along with the bans passed in 2004 and 2011, are hurting the image of France, both within the country and outside of it. To outsiders, especially those from Muslim countries, France is perceived as an unwelcoming country that targets and marginalizes those who practice Islam. To those inside the country, France is seen as a discriminatory nation that hasn’t done anything to help integrate recent immigrants without infringing upon the freedom and equality that they deserve, per the constitution. These unfair policies are only further isolating the Muslim community from the greater French society, creating a clear division between Muslims and non-Muslims. Moreover, France is playing into ISIS’s narrative that the West is hostile toward Muslims and that all Muslims need to unite under one front, which could consequently result in more terrorist activity in the country.

If these types of policies continue to be implemented, France might need to reconsider its motto because it will no longer be a country of liberté, égalité, fraternité.



Marcela Aguirre

Marcela currently works in digital fundraising for a political campaign. She holds an M.A. in International Affairs from Boston University and a B.A., summa cum laude, in Communication Studies with a minor in French from The University of Texas at El Paso. She specializes in foreign policy, public diplomacy, and conflict resolution, and has regional expertise in Europe and Latin America. You can connect with her on Twitter @mar_ce_la_88.
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