Jacques Chirac's Lutte Ouvri�re policemen

'Marxists' front for the oppressors of Muslims, writes Peter Manson

Sections of the French left, confused by interlocking issues of secularism, women's rights and freedom of expression, are in disarray over president Jacques Chirac's plans to scapegoat the oppressed five-million-strong muslim minority. Incredibly, Lutte Ouvri�re, one of France's two largest Trotskyist groups, has come out in support of rightwing plans to ban the wearing or displaying of "ostensible"� religious or political symbols in state schools.

This is primarily aimed at the headscarf, or hijab. However, it is presented as part of a package claiming to defend secularism and the separation of church and state, enacted in 1905 - a claim groups like Lutte Ouvri�re seem to have swallowed hook, line and sinker. According to LO, the headscarf should be banned in schools "not only out of respect for secularism, but also, and especially, in defence of women's rights"� ('Allow women to resist oppression' Lutte Ouvri�re December 19).

Do the comrades really believe that Chirac is dedicated to the promotion of women's rights - any more than he is a defender of republican secularity? Surely not. Stretching credulity even further, they actually want to claim 'credit' for pressurising the establishment into launching its assault on religious and political freedom. The ban on the veil "would undoubtedly not have been possible if teachers had not refused to teach girls wearing the veil, if they had not mobilised to stop it"�. Which "teachers"� are they referring to?

To their shame, their own members have been in the forefront of a campaign aimed at excluding school students from classes simply because their attire is not to the comrades' liking. The most notorious case occurred in Aubervilliers, where two sisters, aged 16 and 18, were banned after a long dispute, aggressively promoted by Lutte Ouvri�re. Alma and Lila L�vy suffered months of harassment and discrimination, including a ban on physical education and sport, allegedly "for reasons of hygiene"� connected with the hijab they took to wearing a year ago. The school authorities exerted all kinds of pressures, proposing, for example, a 'compromise' whereby all teachers would agree to take them if only they would agree to wear the headscarf in such a way as to expose their ears and the roots of their hair!

LO justifies its disgraceful role on the grounds that it is helping young women to free themselves from the male domination, in the family and community, that is symbolised by the hijab, while at the same time striking a blow for secularism. It pretends to believe that every muslim woman who wears the veil is forced to do so and is just waiting for the "help"� of 'teacher knows best' Lutte Ouvri�re members. The case of the Aubervilliers sisters hardly bears this out.

Their mother is a non-practising muslim and their father, Laurent L�vy, is an atheist of Jewish descent. He has made it clear that he does not favour the wearing of the headgear that his daughters have adopted of their own free will, but he has campaigned tirelessly for their right to dress as they choose. According to Lutte Ouvri�re, teachers facing the "problem"� of young women like the L�vys, who insist on exercising their individual right to cover their hair, neck and ears, will now be "delighted to have at their disposal a text to support their opposition to the wearing of the veil in school"�.

The LO writer blithely admits that the proposed law, if passed, "will not by itself end the pressures felt in the family and on the estates by girls"�. But it will be a "point of support"� for them (and "for their teachers"�, of course). Some support! But Laurent L�vy has an eloquent answer to this philistinism: "The idea that certain teachers could be 'troubled' by the sight of my daughters wearing a headscarf could not justify their refusal to teach them.

The 'problem' is less that of children wearing this garment than of teachers refusing to have them in their class."� Secularism (which he fully supports) "does not demand the concealment of religious convictions"�. In fact what his daughters are suffering, at the hands of oppressive authorities - in cahoots with the 'revolutionary Marxists' of Lutte Ouvri�re - is purely and simply "discrimination because of their muslim faith"�. Absolutely correct. Only the secularism of fools aims to suppress the right of religious or political expression.

On the contrary, the genuine secularism championed by consistent democrats and communists aims to protect citizens from the power of the state to force religion upon them. It aims to empower them, not curtail their right to practise (or not practise) whatever religion they choose. Genuine secularism bars the official propagation of religion and prohibits acts of religious worship as part of the school curriculum. The teaching of "the fact of religion"�, to use the French expression, is perfectly acceptable (although some of our topsy-turvy French comrades, while wholeheartedly backing the Chirac ban, seem to think that the teaching of religion as an academic subject somehow breaches lay principles.

Absurdly, Vincent Pr�sumey, writing in the normally sound La Lettre de Liaisons, claims that the exclusion from the ban of the right to wear "discreet"�, as opposed to "ostensible"�, religious symbols amounts to the back-door "institutionalisation"� of religion and the erosion of secularism - December 18). In fact what the ban will do, far from promoting secularism, is, in the words of L�vy, "call into question the necessary coming together of traditions and cultures in school, and strengthen communitarianism"�. Already around one eighth of school students are educated in private schools - 95% of them run by the catholic church. In such institutions, which are generously subsidised by the 'secular' French state, backward religious practices are allowed to run riot.

No doubt the minority of strictly observant muslims, not to mention the islamic 'communitarian' fundamentalists, will be only too pleased to be able to attract more recruits - driven into their arms by the likes of the ultra-economistic Lutte Ouvri�re! Another left grouping which - more understandably, perhaps - has backed what it believes to be a blow against islamism is the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (set up by the Worker-communist Party of Iraq).

Having experienced at first hand the oppressive, anti-women practices of islamists in the Middle East, the comrades have actually written to French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to express their "great enthusiasm and pleasure"� at the proposed ban on the headscarf: "Imposing the veil on female children "� is the first violation of children's rights. We are aware that this false debate is not about the rights of girls to choose their clothes; rather it is about child abuse and part of a political agenda to spread and consolidate political islam in the world today"� (December 25).

With enemies like these, islamic fundamentalists need no friends. The Chirac ban, and the support it has received from both right and left, plays into their hands. It will be used as proof of an unholy alliance aimed at suppressing islamic practices and the muslim religion itself. It is of course true that the headscarf is often a symbol of women's oppression.

But women and girls must be won to willingly embrace their own emancipation - which means the right to wear or not wear items of dress that have repressive origins. They must be won to see that the wearing of the hijab is a right, not a duty - and the exercise of rights can be declined as well as taken up. It is the duty of communists, while standing four-square for genuine secularism and the complete separation of church and state, to champion the democratic right of believers to practise their religion, which includes the right to publicly display religious symbols. One of the most heartening aspects of this whole affair is the willingness of youth to act in solidarity with those whose rights are denied.

It seems that the final straw that led to the exclusion of the L�vy sisters was their participation in a spontaneous demonstration of support by fellow students last year. Those students were determined to make a stand against the oppressive authorities and the Chirac ban - ably enforced by his Lutte Ouvri�re policemen.