France’s decision to ban public school students from wearing the abaya – a long dress or robe popular among women in certain Muslim cultures – and the male equivalent, the qamis, has faced criticism since Aug. 27, 2023, when the country’s education minister announced the new rule.
Yet polls suggest that more than 80% of the French population supports the ban, as does the country’s highest court: The Conseil d'État has upheld the challenged ban twice – most recently on Sept. 25, 2023.
Education Minister Gabriel Attal cited “laïcité,” or French secularism, as the reason for the ban. Legislation passed in 2004 prohibits “ostentatious religious symbols” from public schools, including large crosses and Jewish head coverings, though its main target has been Muslim headscarves.
Debate over the abaya, however, gets to the heart of debates over laïcité. Many critics argue that the abaya is a cultural garment, not a religious one, and should be allowed under laïcité. In practice, though, anything associated with Muslim cultures tends to be considered “religious.” Catholic traditions, meanwhile, are often considered “cultural” – and therefore compatible with laïcité.
My ethnographic research in French schools, where secularism debates are particularly heated, suggests that the abaya ban and the earlier “headscarf law” aren’t really about defending laïcité. Rather, they protect a particular version of French identity – an identity infused with Catholic culture.
Despite its reputation as a staunchly secular country, France has a deep and tangled relationship with Catholicism.
Yet the faith still has a powerful influence upon French culture. Attending church for holidays, funerals, weddings and baptisms remains commonplace. Crosses, church bells and public church processions are considered ordinary aspects of French culture, despite the official emphasis on laïcité as a unifying pillar of national identity.
“I am convinced that the Catholic sap (of France) must still, and forever, contribute to the life of our nation,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a 2018 speech to bishops.
By contrast, headscarves, abayas, minarets, the call to prayer, halal food and Islamic prayer in public spaces are often perceived as threats to French identity. Moreover, these get flagged as religious symbols, putting them in conflict with laïcité in ways that Catholic symbols avoid.