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From a debate over Islamic headscarves to a debate over veils to a ban on the burqa

The debate over the Islamic headscarf (“l’affaire des foulards”) began on 3 October 1989 when three Muslim girls at the Gabriel Havez middle-school in the town of Creil (Oise) outside of Paris refused to remove their headscarves in school. They were expelled by the principal for allegedly contravening the principle of secularism (laïcité) and the neutrality of the public school.

This small incident sparked a veritable media frenzy and heated debates from all sides of the political spectrum. The refusal of three middle-school girls to remove their headscarves became viewed as a symbol of Muslims’ alleged refusal to uphold the French republican values of secularism and the separation of Church and State. It became a symbol of their refusal to assimilate.

International anxiety over Islam and the global war on terror following the incidents of 9/11/2001 led to a change in how headscarves were considered in public and political discourse. Henceforth, the term “headscarves” (foulards) became trumped in favor of “veil” (voile).

In March 2004, a law banning ostentatious religious symbols in public schools was passed: “In public primary and secondary schools, wearing signs or clothes by which pupils clearly display a religious affiliation is forbidden.”

In April 2010, a law banning the burqa (full body cover that also hides the face, leaving only the eyes uncovered) from all public spaces was passed.

In this section, you can read the French laws banning the veil and the burqa, as well as various articles and documents related to the debates leading up to them.