Riots broke out over a full-face Islamic veil. A woman may have lost her unborn baby in another confrontation over her face covering. Tensions flared over a supermarket chain’s ad for the end-of-day feast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
France’s enforcement of its prized secularism is inscribed in law, most recently in a ban on wearing full-face veils in public. Meant to ensure that all faiths live in harmony, the policy instead may be fuelling a rising tide of Islamophobia and driving a wedge between some Muslims and the rest of the population.
Yet ardent defenders of secularism, the product of France’s separation of church and state, say the country hasn’t gone far enough. They want more teeth to further the cause that Voltaire helped inspire and Victor Hugo championed, this time with a law targeting headscarves in the work place, reports The Associated Press.
A new generation of French Muslims ? which at some 5 million, or about eight percent of the population, is the largest in Western Europe ? is finding a growing voice in a nation not always ready to accommodate mosques, halal food and Muslim religious dress. Political pressure from a resurgent far-right has increased the tension.
Women who wear Muslim apparel “are no longer safe,” said Mohera Lukau, a 26-year-old mother of three living in Trappes, a town south of Paris known for its large immigrant population, high unemployment and women who wear long robes or hide their faces behind veils.
Police clashed last week with crowds protesting the arrest of a man who allegedly attacked an officer after his wife was ticketed for veiling her face in public. Dozens of cars were set afire in two nights of unrest in Trappes and an adjoining town. A 14-year-old boy suffered an eye injury.
Weeks earlier, a man allegedly assaulted a pregnant woman and ripped off her veil? one of two separately accosted in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil. She lost her baby days later, although the link with the incident remains unclear. Insults have been unleashed on women wearing Muslim headscarves, with investigations or court cases in three attacks in Reims and three more in Orleans.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has denounced “a rise of violence against the Muslims of France.” At a dinner breaking the Ramadan fast at the Grand Mosque of Paris, he insisted that Islam and the French Republic are compatible. But he signalled the belief by some French people that Muslims want their own rules, denouncing “those who want to make France a land of conquest.”
Lukau has received the message as a sign that she is not entirely welcome in her native country. She veils her head and body but not her face, and covers the heads of her daughters, two and four years old, with hijab scarves that drape over the shoulders. People tell Lukau, who is of Algerian origin, “If you’re not happy, leave, go home,” she said. But, she pointed out, she was born in France.
Most French people are baptized Catholic, but church attendance has been in decline for decades and secular ideals run deep. With the growth of France’s Muslim population, lawmakers have increasingly turned to legislation to try to stifle public displays of Islamic faith.

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