Illustration by Alexandra Najm

France Loves Couscous, But Hates Me

I realized the discrepancy between ruthless stories my family told me about French colonialism in North Africa and its idealization in my history textbooks. Under this flimsy guise of secularism, it is easy for me to see France’s anti-muslim hate.

Apr 18, 2021

My first encounter with French secularism was simple. It was in the classroom, where it is mandatory for all students to take civic education, alongside history and geography, as a discipline. In those classes, I was taught the French slogan that dates from the French Revolution: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. I had never lived in France before, so I was under the impression that France was accepting of all of its citizens, but that was my naive 13 year old self.
I was told that as soon as I entered a French school, I was entering French territory. Like in France, students and teachers were not allowed to enter wearing the hijab, despite the school being located in a Muslim country. When my mother would apply for teaching positions at French schools, in Muslim countries, they would throw away her résumé as soon as they noticed that she was wearing a hijab. If she did get through to the interview, she was asked the dreaded question, “Are you wearing your hijab for religious or cultural reasons?” Beyond the intrusive nature of the question, it also demonstrates the inability to cope with the expression of Muslim piety in public life.
Laïcité is the constitutional principle of secularism in France, heavily rooted in the nation’s history and identity. While laïcité inscribed in law the right to believe or not believe, it also keeps an aggressive distance between religion and public life. In 1905, the government enacted the Law on Separation of the Church and State, which prohibited the state from recognizing or funding any religion. I don’t think I questioned the protection laïcité offered to its citizens until I started thinking more deeply about how my identity and religious beliefs may become a source of discomfort, if not hatred, for some.
In theory, laïcité sounds like it would protect citizens, but from the late 1990s, there have been discussions on “l’affaire du foulard”(headscarf affair). The French government passed a law that bans religious symbols in 2004, which would disproportionately affect Muslim women, since the hijab is a much more visibile religious symbol. Furthermore, there have been instances where Muslim students were banned from wearing long skirts, as it was deemed that it conspicuously showed religious affiliation, when in actuality, it highlighted how schools are instrumentalized as an institution to police young Muslim women.
There is also striking hypocrisy that comes with certain legislation, such as the recent passing of a law in the Senate that would prohibit anyone under 18 from wearing the hijab in public when the age of consent in France is 15. Some have argued that the laws being passed are a weaponization of secularism to get votes for the upcoming elections, but Muslims are stigmatized as the main targets of these laws.
Under this flimsy guise of secularism, it is easy for me to see France’s anti-Muslim hate. I do not use the term Islamophobia, as I do not think that the hatred of the French state is rooted from a fear of Islam, since this also perpetuates the link of Islam with extremism.
Discrimination did not end after colonization, as North and West Africans that migrated to France were treated as second class citizens. The French philosopher Pierre Tevanian argued that in France there is a cultural racism which targets descendants from former colonies, and more often than not, their Muslim identity. The French state cannot veil its history, and its extreme effort to preserve French values is evocative of the colonial state.
You could try to argue that France is trying to “save Muslim women”, but we do not need saving. In fact, we never did. The phenomena of attempting to unveil Muslim women is not novel, rather is nostalgic of colonial feminism, a process whereby colonial officials and missionaries include “feminist projects” as part of their larger mission. In May 1958, French generals in Algiers demonstrated their determination to keep Algeria French. This included unveiling Algerian women to prove that they were loyal to France. But the act of unveiling in and of itself shows France’s deep obsession with Muslim women.
The country’s slogan, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, is based on a conditional promise, one that is built on the assumption that its citizens, and those who would be beneficiaries of it, would be white.
It took me some reflection and personal reading on the subject matter to very gradually see the violent nature of the former colonial state. I realized that there was a discrepancy between the ruthless stories my family told me about French colonialism in North Africa and its idealization in history textbooks. There was an absence of the atrocities committed by the French, the promotion of la mission civilisatrice and an excessive use of passive tense.
The French curriculum is the same worldwide, including in France’s former colonies that are mostly Muslim majority countries in North and West Africa. We need to think of the purposeful silences that exist in history textbooks. History is distorted to the expense of former colony students that, whether in mainland France or overseas, they are served sugar coated intergenerational trauma on a silver platter.
In all of this, I am only sitting at the margins of the violence of the colonial state, and I can only scratch the surface of its relentlessness. It is not enough for France to love couscous, if Muslims and North Africans can not feel safe in a country that will disempower them until they become “model” French citizens. When I say that France hates me, it is not me in the singular but rather a larger collective.
A collective that has been erased, stigmatized and weaponized. Secularism was at the forefront of the sustained efforts of the colonial state to fragment its subjects, it was conspicuously violent and continues to be, even post-decolonization.
Yesmine Abida is a contributing writer. Email her at
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