May 1968 was a month of revolution for France. It was a series of student protests and a general strike that caused the collapse of the De Gaulle government. The events were seen as an opportunity to shake up the “old society” and traditional morality, focusing especially on the education system and employment.
And 40 years later, the legacy of the 1968 clashes live on in the cafés and on the streets of Paris. This April, students and teachers have taken to the streets to demonstrate against government cuts. Thousands of school students and teachers demonstrated on the streets of Paris against a proposed reform of the French education system and government plans to cut education jobs this year, including thousands of teaching posts.
Cafés are deeply associated with political and intellectual life in France, and with rebellion. Whether standing at the bar and drinking espresso or sitting on the old, plush furniture and munching a delicious pastry, the settings seem to change rarely. It was from a café at the Palais Royal that the French Revolution started. And today, there is a new symbol present in the cafes — the hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women).
Statistics show Muslims in France count between about five and six million, which is about 10% to 12% of the French population. That is the highest percentage of Muslims in any Western European country.
Until the early Sixties, Muslim immigrants to France came mainly from Algeria, which was still a French colony at that time. As France traditionally had no coordinated labour immigration policy, many immigrants also arrived from other North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia.
Today, most Muslims in France live in and around industrial centres such as Paris, Marseilles, Lyons and Lille. As many Muslims are part of the unskilled or semi-skilled work force in France, they tend to live in the suburbs (some would call them ghettos) where the living conditions are rather difficult and the crime rate high.
The concentration of Muslims and problems in these areas led to the denomination of these areas as “suburbs of Islam”. As more and younger Muslims realise the discrimination and disadvantage in the system (especially for education and employment), the protest movements increasingly base their critique on a renewed Muslim identity.
As one of its basic principles of state, France has the “Laicite” system (a total separation between state and religion). In 2004, a law was passed that forbids state school students from wearing “conspicuous” religious apparel. The hijab, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and large Christian crosses were banned. The prevention of Muslim students from wearing the hijab to school led to protests by Muslim youth groups and anti-discrimination groups in France.
Young Muslims saw this as a chance to express their growing frustration about cultural and religious marginalisation and discrimination in French society. A growth of right-wing movements in some parts of France are said to be xenophobic and discriminatory towards Muslims.
In the 1968 revolution, barricades were used in the streets and became the symbols of the revolution, so perhaps the hijab is the symbol of a current revolution. While the hijab is banned in schools, it is not banned in universities. Speaking to a group of young girls wearing the hijab at the Jussieu University, I was told that when a woman wears the hijab, many doors are closed for her — she perhaps can’t get a job in government, and it will be very difficult to find employment elsewhere unless she removes her hijab.
They said that many French are prejudiced and some think that the hijab is a veil of the mind as well. The girls, students of biology and maths, said that even though future employment options look bleak, they still seek knowledge for personal satisfaction. They hope to show other young Muslims that a woman in hijab can fight the prejudice by excelling at university and expressing herself in a good way. “One day we will have Muslim women in hijab that are doctors, lawyers and teachers,” said one girl.
So what can be done to speed up the positive change that these students are so confident about? “Muslims need to start communicating,” a student said. “There is not enough communication between Muslims and the rest of French society. For example, people don’t understand that Muslim women choose to wear the hijab.” A student group, the EMF (Étudiants musulmans de France), is trying to build bridges of understanding between Muslim students and others.
For the male Muslim students, life and opportunity is not that much different — they also face discrimination, especially those from immigrant backgrounds, together with immigrants of all other faiths.
“A student from an immigrant background needs to work harder to succeed, as he may not have the same opportunities as others who are more settled and stable,” said a student of history at the famous Sorbonne University. This student is of Tunisian and French parentage and has already completed a degree in nursing.
“Many of my friends from immigrant backgrounds are becoming lawyers, doctors and teachers — they are proving to the youth out there that even though we come from the ghettos, where things may not be that easy, with hard work, determination and the blessings of God we can accomplish things and make change!”
This is the new spirit of revolution: to be confident, determined and still faithful to one’s beliefs.
So while students complained to me about the discrimination, the widely perceived lack of opportunities and the difficulties associated with growing up in the suburbs, some French Muslim youth are driving change and continuing the French tradition of revolution — as the hijab revolution!
“So what do you think needs to be done to integrate into mainstream French society?” I foolishly asked.
The female student snapped a fierce retort: “We are French! We were born here and have lived here our entire lives. We are already integrated — others need to accept us for who we are: French Muslims!”
I remember reading a quote of a veteran of May 1968: “Barricades close the street but open up the way,” and I wonder just how similar the hijab is to the barricades; it covers the head but opens up the mind.