France: New Anti-Capitalist Party defends democratic right to wear hijab

Image removed.
NPA candidate Ilham Moussaïd.

By Olivier Besancenot, translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (MRZine)

February 3, 2010 -- Le Figaro caricatured my words regarding the candidacy of Ilham Moussaïd, who is on our list in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur regional elections. After a serious and complex debate, the Vaucluse chapter of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) made a choice to include on its feminist, anti-capitalist and internationalist lists an NPA member who believes in wearing a headscarf on account of her religious convictions.

[See French capitalist press report below.]

Our party welcomes youth, the unemployed, the precarious, workers of all backgrounds who find their values reflected in the party. Faith is a matter of personal choice that does not create any obstacle to participation in our struggle so long as members sincerely share the secular, feminist and anti-capitalist fundamental principles of our party.

I therefore simply said to Le Figaro: "Ilham is evidence that one can be a member of the NPA and wear a headscarf."

The NPA is a party that fights against any form of oppression and exclusion. A debate on liberation and the place of religion -- and all its forms of expression -- exists within the NPA, in view of its next congress.

[The original article "Déclaration d'Olivier Besancenot. Rectificatif à propos d'un article du Figaro" was published on the web site of the New Anti-Capitalist Party on February 3, 2010. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi. See, also Françoise David and Amir Khadir, "Secularism: For a Broad, Open, and Democratic Debate" (MRZine, January 18, 2010); Danièle Obono, "The Left and Racial Domination in France: An Interview with Sadri Khiari (MIR)" (MRZine, January 6, 2010); and Saïd Mekki, "The Decolonizing Struggle in France: An Interview with Houria Bouteldja" (MRZine, October 28, 2009).]

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Far-left party reveals ‘veiled’ female candidate

By Tony Todd

February 3, 2010 -- French 24 -- The veil issue has shown its face in French politics once again, after radical anti-capitalist fringe party the NPA revealed that one of its candidates in forthcoming regional elections wears an Islamic headscarf.

A candidate for a radical French anti-capitalist party in the forthcoming regional elections wears a headscarf as a token of her Islamic faith, something that has raised eyebrows in this rigidly secular society.

All the more so because the NPA (New Anti-capitalist Party), led by Trotskyist postman Olivier Besancenot, is a party that generates headlines for its extreme left-wing position on issues including militant secularism.

“A woman can be a feminist, can uphold secular values and wear a [Islamic] headscarf at the same time,” he told the newspaper.

The veiled meanings of a very French issue

Wearing a headscarf – as well as the wearing of other religious symbols such as crucifixes – is strictly prohibited in French public institutions such as schools.

And a cross-party parliamentary commission last month came up with a list of recommendations for a law to ban wearing the full face veil (niqab) in public places such as hospitals and on public transport.

It is a very French issue. Islamic headscarfs in France are all referred to as “voile” – meaning veil – whether or not they cover the face.

The French public dislikes veils because they are seen as the embodiment of male domination over women, as well as symbols of religious attachment in a country that clings fiercely to the principle of the separation of church and state.

But veils and headscarves are also an overt reminder that France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, something that makes the (often Christian) right wing uncomfortable.

Radical pragmatism of a fringe party

Making headway in the country’s deprived suburbs, notable for their large Muslim immigrant populations, could pay political dividends for the NPA, which is very much a fringe party.

The “banlieues”, Besancenot told Le Figaro, are “deserts where social associations, unions and political activity barely flourish”.

They are also places where women, some of whom wear Islamic veils, are starting to carry the torch for the NPA’s brand of militant anti-capitalist Trotskyism.

In a statement, the party said the choice to put Moussaid forward as a candidate had come after “a serious and complex debate”.

“[Moussaid] is a militant feminist, anti-capitalist and internationalist who happens to wear a headscarf for religious reasons”, the statement continues. “The NPA welcomes young people, the unemployed and wage-earners of all walks of life who hold our ideals dear. Religious faith is a private matter that should in no way be an obstacle to the NPA’s fight for its fundamental principles of secularism, feminism and anti-capitalism.”

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 02/05/2010 - 17:17


Green Left Weekly, January 28, 2004

Susan Price, a Socialist Alliance (Australia) member, argues that feminists and socialists should oppose state-enforced bans on women wearing hijab, or Muslim headscarves.

In December 2003, more than 3000 protesters hit the streets of Paris in opposition to the plan to introduce a law in France to ban the wearing of the headscarf and “other ostentatious religious symbols” in French state schools.

Tens of thousands then rallied across the world on January 18, as part of an international day of protest against the ban. The bill is to be put before the French cabinet on January 29, before an opening debate in the National Assembly on February 3.

Pressure is mounting for a “no” vote — or at least abstention — by the major parties on the bill.

Union opposition

The French trade union movement is divided on the issue. According to a December article written by Luc Bronner and Martine Laronche in Le Monde, the United Trade Union Federation (FSU), which represents 45% of teachers in France, is hostile to the introduction of such a law, but believes if introduced, it must address the contradictions in French secular society.

Snuipp-FSU, which covers the majority of the primary schoolteachers, has not taken a formal vote on opposing the ban. But its general secretary Nicole Geneix declared the union hostile to the law, as is Sgen-CFDT (the French Democratic Confederation of Labour’s affiliated teacher union) which covers 11.4% of teachers.

Other union federations covering teachers have come out in favour of the ban, including UNSA-Education (affiliated to the National Confederation of Independent Unions, covering 14.4% of teachers) and the Union Confederation of National Education (CSEN), which represents 6.1% of teachers. The Workers’ Force, which represents 7.1 % of teachers, declared in favour of a very partial revision to the legislation.

The debate hit the headlines after two teenage women were expelled from a high school for wearing headscarves. This follows other such exclusions over the last two years in France. According to Reuters, on a visit to Tunisia in December 2003, French President Jacques Chirac commented to pupils at the French High School that he saw “something aggressive” in the wearing of traditional Muslim veils.

The Stasi Commission, given the task of looking into the possibility of a ban by Chirac, recommended that “oversized crosses” and the Jewish kippa should be banned along with hijab.

Agence France Presse reported on January 21 that education minister Luc Ferry (who drew up the text of the law), told the National Assembly's social affairs committee on January 20, that Sikhs could be persuaded to wear “invisible nets” on their heads instead of turbans.

Ferry then went even further: “One can invent religious signs from mere hairiness. When a beard is transformed into a religious symbol it will fall under the law. Creativity is infinite in the matter.”

However, although the law may affect many in France badly, its main intention is the social regulation and control of young Muslims, who bear the brunt of the neoliberal government’s racist attacks.

The law has majority support amongst the French public (figures range from 57-70% in polls) and has even drawn strong endorsement from feminists and mainstream women’s organisations and media.

Elle magazine carried a public appeal to Chirac to introduce a ban on what it termed a “visible symbol of the submission of women”. The appeal has been signed by several high profile French women.

The revolutionary left has responded in different ways. The Revolutionary Communist League's (LCR) Rouge newspaper carried a cover page calling for “Neither the discriminatory law nor the oppressive veil”. Lutte Ouvrier (LO) supports the ban.

The main arguments to justify the ban in France have centred on defence of secularism and women’s rights.


Secularism has a deep historical basis in the founding of the French Republic. The official separation of church and state was achieved in 1905. State regulation of religious dress and behaviour, however, has a less clear history. In 1937, under the Popular Front government formed against the threat of fascism, schools were instructed to keep religious symbols out.

Fifty-two years later, in 1989, the French Council of State ruled that “the wearing … of signs by which …[students] intend to express their membership of a religion is not by itself incompatible with the principle of secularity.”

This remained the case until 1994, when schools were advised by the education minister that they could ban “ostentatious religious symbols”. In 1996, the Council of State again ruled that the school ban transgressed the principle of freedom of expression.

The uselessness of trying to impose secularism by banning individual religious expression in public institutions such as schools is proven by the experience of Turkey.

In 1999, Turkey banned headscarves in schools, universities and public offices on the grounds that they symbolised a politicised form of Islam. Three-hundred teachers who refused to follow the new policy were fired. An MP who wore a headscarf was expelled from parliament.

Turkey’s tradition of secularism dates back to the 1920s. Mustapha Kemal, also known as Ataturk, pursued a program of ``Westernisation”. Sharia (Islamic law) was abolished in 1926 and Islam was removed from the constitution as Turkey's official religion in 1928. Kemal championed legal equality for women, introducing a range of progressive reforms. However, secularism was forcibly imposed, crudely elevating Western dress, music and etiquette.

Islamic forces campaigned against the 1999 ban by condemning the violation of their democratic rights. Alongside popular resentment at the repressive enforcement of “secular” policy, a deep resentment of the arrogance of the corrupt “secular” elite propelled the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) into government in the November 3 general election.

One of the AKP's first pledges was to lift the ban on headscarves, although four years later the ban is still in place in universities, higher education and Islamic colleges. It has resulted in three women involved in the 1999 campaign being repeatedly arrested since then and then jailed this year in Istanbul.

Turkey's experience reinforces the point that separation of church and state is about allowing for freedom of thought — not outlawing religious behaviour in the name of secularism.

Defence of religious freedom is fundamental for the progressive movement. Monopolising religious ideas is one way that the ruling class can seek to justify oppression, and entrench its rule.

In 1905, at the time of the democratic revolution in Russia, Vladimir Lenin wrote in Novaya Zhizn, that religion must be declared a private affair as far as the state is concerned. “Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he or she pleases, or no religion whatsoever… Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable.”


Some argue that to allow the wearing of hijab undermines the cause of those young women who are fighting against being forced to wear the veil.

Many women, Muslim and non-Muslim, have criticised the pressure placed upon women to cover their hair, bodies and sometimes faces, in the name of honouring a god. Feminist writers such as Fatima Mernissi, have pointed out the connection between women’s isolation from public life and the wearing of the veil.

But the veil and headscarf are not the source of women's oppression and inferior social status. Simply banning women from wearing symbolic clothing will not change their status or the underlying pressures upon them. For real equality, women must win economic independence and the ability to make a full range of choices about the way they live their lives.

First World governments have gone on a racist frenzy since 9/11, seeking to persuade First World populations that Muslims are opposed to freedoms and rights these governments falsely claim are enshrined in Judeo-Christian societies. This makes it even more vital for socialists to put forward alternative ways of combating sexism, rather than calling on governments to regulate religious practice.

It is not surprising that France’s right-wing government has launched this offensive while the revolutionary left is making gains. The wedge-politics of racism has always been used to divide the working class, which in France pulled off spectacular rolling strikes against the government in 2003.

The current attack must also be seen as part of a continuum of racist policies which go back to the mid-1990s and the “Fortress Europe” policies of the major European capitalist governments, particularly (but not limited to) Germany and France.

The policies of “Fortress Europe” were an attempt by bourgeois parties to appeal to the support base of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s right-wing National Front (FN). During the mid 1990s, FN-controlled local councils sought to censor library collections and ban the serving of hilal and kosher meals for Muslim and Jewish school students. Many of those policies have since been co-opted by the ruling elite.

The ban on the hijab should be opposed. The best way to fight sexism, like racism, is to encourage women to fight to defend their rights through collective action of the oppressed. It is such collective action, between muslims and non-Muslims, that Chirac is trying to avoid.

From Green Left Weekly, January 28, 2004.

See also "The veil and religious freedom" at

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 02/16/2010 - 10:20


IV Online magazine : IV421 - February 2010

1) At the same time as the government is accentuating its anti-social policies and increasing expulsions of undocumented migrants, the NPA is being targeted in the framework of the debate on national identity.

The NPA is confronted with a political-media campaign centred on one of its 2000 candidates in the regional elections, Ilham Moussaid, who wears a headscarf and is in fourth position on the NPA - Alternatifs list in the Vaucluse department of the Provence-Cote d’Azur (PACA) region, where Jacques Hauyé heads the departmental list.

Contrary to what some people have been making out, it is in no way a question of a « political and media coup » orchestrated by the leadership of the NPA, but of a decision that was taken in Vaucluse. A minority of the members of the NPA in this department were opposed to it. The decision taken by the Vaucluse comrades cannot be taken to be the position of the NPA as a whole, since it had not been discussed in advance at any level of the party. 2) Our comrade Ilham Moussaid is a member of the NPA, and as such, can put herself forward as a candidate in the same way as the other members of our party.

A majority of comrades in Vaucluse decided to accept her as a candidate. Whatever one may think of this decision, it was taken in conformity with the statutes of the party. We assure the NPA-Alternatifs list and all of the candidates of our solidarity at this difficult moment.

3) Ilham wears a headscarf (and not a burqa, as some people have said and written). She sees no contradiction between this and the founding principles of the NPA, of which the feminist and secular dimension constitutes one of the keystones, and affirms her attachment to these values and to all of the founding principles of the party.

The headscarf is not only a visible religious symbol, but also an instrument of subjection of women, used in various forms and at various times by the three monotheistic religions, even though Ilham does not experience it as such, and is not the only woman in our society to feel that way.

4) The announcement of the candidacy of Ilham Moussaid has provoked many reactions. All of them are not of the same kind. The criticisms and disagreements expressed within the NPA and by movements or by activists of the social movement and the feminist movement represent arguments which enrich the discussion, and the debate will continue.

On the other hand, we denounce the hate-ridden and hypocritical flood coming from the far Right, the UMP, the Socialist Party, and indeed the Left Party and the Communist Party. We don’t hear so much from them when the President of the Republic falls into the arms of the Pope or crosses himself in public on an official visit, or when Boutin brandishes the Bible in the National Assembly. The institutional parties spend millions on financing private high schools, in particular Catholic ones. As for the Communist Party, it really ought to be more careful, since, alongside the SP, it accepted on its lists during the local election campaign a candidate wearing a headscarf, who continues to wear it in the municipal council of Echirolles of which she is a member.

5) Within the NPA, the EC confirms that the debate on « religion and emancipations », planned before this political-media campaign, will take place. The internal debate that we are having is a public debate. The decision taken in Vaucluse does not create any « jurisprudence » on the question. The congress of the NPA is sovereign.

6) Now it is time to first of all and above all conduct the campaign around the lists that we are presenting or supporting, a campaign to get across what is really different about us, that we are a Left that is anticapitalist, antiracist, ecologist, internationalist and feminist, a Left which has always been in solidarity with women who resist those who want to force them to wear the veil.

Adopted unanimously by those present, with one abstention, February 8, 2010

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 02/26/2010 - 09:17



Forgive an outsider and staunch atheist like myself who, on reading the recent French press comments relating to Ilhem Moussaid the hijab-wearing NPA candidate in Avignon, gets the impression that something is rotten in French political culture. Let’s take the debate at face-value. A young Muslim woman joins the NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party]. She obviously agrees with its program that defends abortion, contraception, etc, i.e. a woman’s right to choose. She is then told that despite this she does not have the right to choose what she wears on her head. It’s astonishing. There is no Koranic injunction involved. The book says: "Draw their (women's) veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty", which can be interpreted in several ways but is disregarded most blatantly by hijab-wearing Egyptian women I see in Cairo and Karachi wearing tight jeans and T-shirts that contradicted the spirit of the Koranic message.

Patriarchal traditions, cultural habits and identity are what is at stake here and they vary from generation to generation. Pushing people back into a ghetto never helps.

I grew up in a Communist family in Lahore. My mother never wore a veil. She set up a feminist group in the Fifties that worked with working class women in the poorest quarter of the city. Half of them covered their heads in public. It did not affect their activism in the slightest. Similar stories can be told of women in different parts of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim. The Algerian women who fought in the resistance against French republican colonialism did so as anti-imperialists. Some were partially veiled, others not. It did not affect the way they fought or the methods used by the French to torture them. Perhaps the torturers should have been more brutal to the hijabed freedom-fighters to help integrate their progeny better in the Republican tradition.

In 1968-9, the Pakistani students, workers, clerks and women (including prostitutes) fought for three months against a military dictatorship and won: the only victory of those years. The religious groups backed the military. They were isolated and defeated, but many of the women students who fought with us wore the hijab and chanted militant slogans against the Jamaat-i-Islami. Should we have told them they couldn’t participate unless they took off their head-cover? Personally, I would have preferred that for purely aesthetic reasons, but it made nil difference to our struggle.

The anger against Ilhem and the NPA is completely misplaced. The real state of the world leaves the defenders of the Republic completely unaffected: the million dead of Iraq, the continuing siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, the killing of innocents in Afghanistan, the US drone attacks in Pakistan, the brutal exploitation of Haiti, etc. Why is this the case?

Several years ago I noticed that French protests against the Iraq war were muted compared to the rest of Western Europe. I don’t accept that this was due to Chirac’s opposition to the war [after all de Gaulle had opposed the Vietnam war even more strongly], but to Islamophobia: an increasing intolerance of the Other in French society, reminiscent of the attitude towards Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The conformism of that period explains the popularity of Vichy during the early years of the war.

Islamophobes and anti-Semites share a great deal in common. Cultural or ‘civilizational’ differences are highlighted to sanction immigrant communities in Europe. The narratives are multiple. No universalist response is possible. Immigrants and the countries to which they migrate are different to each other. Take the United States for a start. This is a territory peopled by migrants, many of whom were Protestant fundamentalists, from the seventeenth century onwards and which has depended on migrations ever since.

In most of Western Europe the first large wave of migrants were from the former colonies of the European powers. In Britain, the migrants were from the Caribbean Islands and South Asia, in France from the Maghreb. Without abandoning their identities, they integrated in different ways and on different levels. The South Asians, principally peasants and a sprinkling of workers, were not treated well by the trades-unions. Despite this, South Asian migrant workers led some of the most memorable struggles for unionization.

The Indians in particular came from a highly politicized culture where Communism was strong and they brought this experience with them to Britain (like the New York taxi drivers today). The Pakistanis were less political and tended towards networking groups reflecting clan loyalties in their villages or cities of origin. The British governments encouraged religion by pleading for mullahs to arrive so that the migrants could be kept away from the racial currents in the working class during the 1960s and 1970s.

In France, there was forced integration. Each citizen was taught that s/he had the same rights, something that was patently not the case. It is material needs and a desire to live better that fuel the rage, not spiritual beliefs. During the eruption of the banlieus in 2005, Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, like the ultras in Stendhal’s novels, talked of ‘savages.’ I have often pointed out to the discomfiture of even some leftists that the kids who rioted had integrated well by internalizing the best French traditions: 1789, 1793,1848, 1871, 1968. When oppression became unbearable the young built barricades and attacked property. Deprivation, not disbelief, was the root of their anger.

How many Western citizens have any real idea of what the Enlightenment really was? French philosophers undoubtedly took humanity forward by recognizing no external authority of any kind, but there was a darker side. Voltaire: "Blacks are inferior to Europeans, but superior to apes." Hume: "The black might develop certain attributes of human beings, the way the parrot manages to speak a few words." There is much more in a similar vein from their colleagues. It is this aspect of the Enlightenment that appears to be more in tune with some of the Islamophobic ravings in sections of the global media.

Marx famously wrote of religion as the ‘opium of the people’, but the sentence that followed is forgotten. Religion was also ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’ and this partially explains the rise of religiosity in every community since the collapse of Communism. Compare the young Normaliens trooping in to say Mass today to the horror of their parents. My women friends in the Muslim world complain bitterly when their daughters wear the hijab as a protest against familial norms. It was always thus.

Published in Le Monde on February 20, 2010.

Tariq Ali's latest book, The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom and other Essays, has just been published by Verso.

Submitted by Jamie Redding (not verified) on Sat, 05/08/2010 - 22:57


"A young Muslim woman joins the NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party]. She obviously agrees with its program that defends abortion, contraception, etc, i.e. a woman’s right to choose. She is then told that despite this she does not have the right to choose what she wears on her head."

This is a compelling example of people's right to choose - this woman finds herself the victim of double-standards. To be honest, I'm on the fence with this hijab law. There's more to it, of course, then the simple notion of discrimination by the French Govt.

It's not simply that black and white. Good article nonetheless.