Workers Vanguard No. 1025
31 May 2013
Fake Trotskyists Support Firing of Veiled Women
The following article is translated from Le Bolchévik No. 204 (June 2013), newspaper of our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France.
MAY 3—In March, the Final Court of Appeals reversed a decision that had allowed the Baby Loup day-care center to fire an employee for wearing an Islamic headscarf. Seizing on this ruling, [Socialist Party] president François Hollande announced that he wanted a new law that would extend to the private sector the restrictions on wearing the headscarf now in force in the public schools. He proclaimed, “Whenever there is contact with children, in what we call public care for toddlers, there should be parity with what exists in the [public] schools.”
The government and local administrations are already closing maternity hospitals, cutting back the family allowance, preventing children whose parents are unemployed from eating in school cafeterias, etc. But babies and toddlers can sleep peacefully because Hollande and his education minister Vincent Peillon will protect them from nannies in headscarves. Hollande & Co. hope their new crusade, waged in the name of the sacrosanct principle of “secularism” and the “values of the Republic,” will bring them a little relief by deflecting people’s attention away from soaring unemployment and the new austerity programs coming on top of the existing ones.
Supporting Hollande over the Baby Loup affair are many of the same people who yesterday were howling in support of [former president Nicolas] Sarkozy’s anti-Muslim provocations: Alain Finkielkraut, Philippe Val, Jeannette Bougrab, Elisabeth Badinter, etc. But behind them stand the Left Party and Lutte Ouvrière (LO), serving as a grotesque left cover for this latest racist attack by the French state. And they join the fray in the name of combating women’s oppression. Thus, LO headlined its article on the Baby Loup court decision “The Final Appeals Court and the Baby Loup Childcare Center: An Attack on Women’s Rights” (Lutte Ouvrière, 29 March).
It is obvious that a new law prohibiting the headscarf in the private sector will only reinforce the isolation of Muslim women in their homes as well as their economic woes. Their families will pay the price. This campaign is in the service of the racist lie that the real problem in society is not the capitalist system but supposedly women in headscarves, and Muslims and minorities in general. The ayatollahs of secularism intend to broaden their offensive. In the name of “religious neutrality,” they are now trying to ban the headscarf for childcare providers working out of their own homes. A similar law was adopted by the Senate a year ago. It was dropped from the Assembly’s legislative agenda but has now resurfaced, promoted by Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg, honorary president of the [bourgeois] Left Radicals and part of the government majority.
These home-based childcare providers, often Muslims, provide a service that allows many thousands of other women to leave home to work given the shortage of day-care centers in France. The Baby Loup center offers 24-hour childcare seven days a week—which is very rare—in one of the working-class suburbs around Paris. But the great defenders of secularism and women’s rights are not only ready to see it closed rather than employ a woman in a headscarf, they are equally ready to sentence countless other women to unemployment if their home-based childcare law is passed. We say: No to racist exclusions and laws against the veil! Down with the government’s anti-Muslim offensive!
“Secularism”: Cover for
This so-called secularism, which is a cover for anti-Muslim prejudices, has nothing to do with the principle of secularism established by the French Revolution of 1789. As we explained in our article “Women and Immigration in France” [Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 57, Winter 2002-2003]:
“The French state deformed the goals and values of the French Revolution with this attack on these Muslim girls. Under the ancien régime of the French king, France was known as ‘the eldest daughter of the Church.’ The principle of secularism in the French Revolution came from the need to protect the freedom to express ideas and to free society from the hands of the Catholic church. That this principle is used today by a Catholic majority to oppress a Muslim minority in French society is a cruel irony of history. It underscores the degree to which the French bourgeoisie in the epoch of capitalist decay has degenerated from the class that led the 1789 Revolution, a historic watershed in the struggle for human emancipation.”
The Ligue Trotskyste de France has always opposed the headscarf and the veil, which represent a reactionary social program of keeping women within the confines of the family, in the home and in a position of servitude. Likewise, we oppose the trappings of all religions, all of which promote the family, which is the bedrock of women’s oppression. In France, a 1905 law went some way toward the separation of church and state, but Catholicism remains powerful and is used by the ruling class to reinforce social conservatism and sanctify capitalist class rule. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in the past six months as priests and their well-heeled flocks have taken the streets to spew their reactionary venom, praying and marching in opposition to new democratic rights for gays and in support of their model of “one man on one woman for life.”
Islam in France will never be anything but a religion of the ghetto, i.e., a religion of the oppressed who often have lost hope of fighting the racist segregation and poverty they endure under French capitalism. They turn to religion not only as a refuge but also as an act of defiance of the French state that excludes them. This is why Marx called religion “the heart of a heartless world.” The mosques are overflowing in Chanteloup-les-Vignes where the Baby Loup day-care center is located and in many banlieues [minority and working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of big cities] across the country where unemployment is at least twice the national average (and even higher for youth).
Evidently, Fatima Afif, the worker at the center of the Baby Loup affair, wanted to wear the headscarf after returning to the facility in December 2008 from a five-year family leave. Prior to this leave, which began in May 2003, she had no problem wearing her headscarf at work. But during her absence, in the summer of 2003, new regulations were instituted at her workplace to impose “philosophical, political and religious neutrality.” During her five-year leave, racist exclusions served to push women like Afif deeper into religious obscurantism.
For a Multiethnic Revolutionary Workers Party!
The use of secularism as a cover for anti-Islamic prejudice escalated in the early 1990s and reached a high point in 2004 with then-president Chirac’s law banning the headscarf in schools. The backdrop to this rise in reaction was capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and across East Europe in 1990-92—a huge defeat for the world’s working class and oppressed, which was hailed by virtually the entire “left.” The capitalist class, which appropriates the wealth produced by the workers, has needed a scapegoat to derail the class struggles that continue to break out.
The Communist Party and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR—which finally dropped the “communism” in its name to become the “New Anti-Capitalist Party”) believed the bourgeoisie’s lies about the so-called “death of communism” and the end of the grand soir [revolutionary aspirations]. But the bourgeoisie knew they had to continue to devise schemes to divide and weaken the working class—hence the “Green [Islamic] Peril.” In 1991, at the onset of the first Gulf War, [“Socialist” president François] Mitterrand deployed “Vigipirate” [a campaign of cop terror in minority communities] for the first time. It was reminiscent of the anti-Muslim offensive in Paris during the Algerian War and laid the groundwork for the “war on terror” against Islam. It also provided the basis for a significant strengthening of the state’s repressive arsenal against any perceived opponent of capitalist rule and ultimately the working class. Down with Vigipirate! For workers mobilizations against racist state terror!
The isolation and hopelessness of the oppressed in this society today are the bitter fruit of the left’s betrayals. Socialist rulers Mitterrand, Lionel Jospin and now Hollande have all portrayed Muslims as the new “enemy within” and have increased deportations and attacks on undocumented immigrants. They have also driven down the living standards of the poorest layers in society. The economic crisis has only made things worse, as factories that used to employ the fathers and grandfathers of today’s minority youth have closed down. The planned closure of the PSA auto plant in Aulnay, the axing of 800 temporary jobs at Sochaux and the decision to eliminate 1,200 jobs at Phone House are just the tip of the iceberg of constantly rising youth unemployment.
The parents and grandparents of today’s minority youth contributed to creating France’s wealth in the period following World War II. But their descendants are largely treated as a surplus population, useful at best for an occasional short-term job but more often destined for the local unemployment office or prison.
At the same time, until capitalism is overthrown, the bourgeoisie will need a proletariat to exploit and extract surplus value from in order to generate profits and capital. While the capitalists seek to transfer more and more manufacturing overseas, where even more profit can be squeezed out of foreign workers, an industrial infrastructure remains and will remain in this country. From Charles de Gaulle Airport, to auto plants, public transport, construction, etc., not to mention janitors and staff in nursing homes, it is clear that minority workers make up a disproportionate percentage of the workforce. Their central role in production gives them the social power that is essential to fight against capitalist exploitation. This is also why the bourgeoisie sees them as a special threat.
The struggles to save individual plants or defend local working conditions, which are now often isolated and end in defeat, must be taken to a higher level. For this, the working class needs a revolutionary leadership, a tribune of the people. Such a leadership would fight for jobs for all, especially for youth of immigrant background. It would combat the daily racist terror in the minority neighborhoods and wage a fight for women’s rights. It would expose how the poison of racism, a form of “false consciousness,” is used to divide the working class. It would seek to win the working class to defend ghetto youth and veiled women against repression. If workers combat the rulers’ divisive maneuvers, they will wield their social power with greater unity and become stronger against the bosses.
A revolutionary party would also combat the lies peddled by the left that capitalism can be made to be more humane, gentle and inclusive. Only workers overthrowing their exploiters through socialist revolution can open the way for a new society based on a centralized planned economy. The fight will have to be extended internationally, but it will immediately be possible to start tackling the scourges of capitalism—unemployment, scarcity and social oppression—along with the prejudice and reaction they breed. We are dedicated to building such a leadership, and our model is the experience of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution of October 1917.
Expelling Veiled Girls
In 2003, giant public-sector strikes exploded against the Fillon reform, which was an attack on pensions. One of the clearest examples of how the bourgeoisie wields “secularism” to divide the workers and weaken their struggles occurred in this context. Teachers formed one of the most militant sectors of these strikes. Although the protests ended in June with a sellout by the union bureaucrats, many teachers threatened to resume their strike action at the start of the fall term. It was at the onset of the strike movement to defend pensions that the Socialist Jack Lang, a former education minister, introduced a bill in parliament seeking to outlaw the headscarf in schools. Fellow Socialist Laurent Fabius then picked up the baton. At the height of the strike movement in late May, he publicly demanded such a law, joining the leaders of the [governing conservative] UMP, which was increasingly calling for such legislation.
When schools reopened, Lutte Ouvrière and leading LCR members such as Pierre-François Grond (now with the Anti-Capitalist Left inside the Left Front) acted as foot soldiers for secularism, opening up a new front rather than resuming the fight over pensions. This time they marched in step with [labor minister François] Fillon and Chirac, to exclude from their schools young women wearing the headscarf. Some LO members and Grond played a key role in the expulsion of Alma and Lila Levy from their high school in Aubervilliers. LO and Grond served to spearhead the 2004 headscarf law, which brought a rare moment of national unity for then-president Chirac. Building on it, he launched new attacks on workers, notably the privatization of EDF-GDF [electric and gas companies] in June 2004.
Before the new school year in August 2003, LO was lamenting that Chirac would not go all the way and ban the headscarf at schools. They wrote: “When they want to bury a problem they create a commission. And what Chirac is proposing to set up certainly seems to come out of that tradition” (Lutte Ouvrière, 8 August 2003). But LO would not be disappointed by the commission presided over by Bernard Stasi. In December 2003, it recommended a ban on the headscarf in schools. Barely a few weeks later, the law was adopted with 93 percent of the legislators across all parties in favor. In a recent article on the Baby Loup affair, Le Monde Diplomatique’s Alain Gresh noted regarding the Stasi commission (blog.mondediplo.net):
“Going back to the 2003-04 debate is important, because the commission, to justify its choices, based itself on ‘examples’ and ‘cases’ supposedly proving that the school system faced an imminent threat. Now the same pretext is being used with the Baby Loup affair, to justify a new law the only result of which will be, again, to stigmatize Muslims as suspect a priori.”
Only on the last day of hearings did the commission agree to even hear from women wearing the headscarf. It previously had no qualms, however, about interviewing the [fascist] National Front or about hearing from carefully selected teachers and school principals who all recounted more or less the same horror story that the so-called jewel of the Republic—its secular public school system—was under siege by Islamic fanatics. The Ligue Trotskyste de France participated in the 14 February 2004 demonstration called to protest this law with a banner reading: “No to the Racist Law Against Youth Wearing the Headscarf! Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants! Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!”
LO, however, welcomed Chirac’s law: “If in the end there is a law, so much the better. Because for all these girls who are fighting to be able to dress, work and live as they want, which means not to wear the veil, this can be a point of support” (Lutte Ouvrière, 6 February 2004). Since the law was passed in 2004, racial divisions and tensions have only increased. At least a dozen Muslim private schools now exist, including in Aubervilliers, where Lutte Ouvrière had Alma and Lila Levy expelled. And while it is difficult to establish just how many expulsions have taken place over this nine-year period, it is undeniable that young girls continue to be driven out of public school and into private religious schools.
The most recent example is 15-year-old Sirine, who was expelled from her school in Val-de-Marne in early April after being barred from attending classes for four months because her headband was too wide and her skirt too long for her inquisitors. The local court in Melun ruled in mid March that her school had to reinstate her, but the school district administration appealed and she was expelled for good shortly thereafter. Sirine will now attend a private school, no doubt one that is religious and probably Muslim. How her expulsion combats women’s oppression is for LO and their fellow devotees of secularism to explain. [Sirine is now attending another public school.]
Except for Veiled Women!
In 2003-04, Lutte Ouvrière manned the front lines in the effort to get a law passed expelling veiled young women from school. Today in the wake of the Baby Loup affair, they once again present themselves as the guarantors of a new law to be recommended by Hollande’s Observatoire de la laïcité [government body ensuring enforcement of secularism in the public sector]. An article in Lutte Ouvrière (29 March) said about the court decision in favor of Fatima Afif: “This decision rightly provoked a wave of protests, because it gives ammunition to obscurantists of all stripes, and many people are calling for a revision of the existing laws, calling for a broadening of the prohibition of obvious displays of religious practice, in the name of secularism.” Given its protest of the decision, one can only suppose that LO counts itself among the “many” demanding new legislation. And this came in the context of rising racist attacks, of which women are often the main victims. Of the reported attacks against Muslims compiled by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, 94 percent were women.
On May 18, the Moms Are All Equal Collective is calling for another demonstration to protest any future law banning veiled women from working in the private sector. They are also demanding the abrogation of the 2012 Chatel Circular (passed under Sarkozy), which recommends that schools “prevent” mothers wearing the headscarf from accompanying their kids on school outings, all in the name of “secularism and neutrality in the public sphere.” Of course, the Socialist Party minister of cops and “relations with religions,” Manuel Valls, declared that he wants to see the Chatel Circular upheld. Last year at the time of the presidential elections, Moms Are All Equal wrote to all candidates about the impact of the 2004 law and asked where they stood on the Chatel Circular, the ban on veiled women working in the public sector, etc. Nathalie Arthaud, a leader of LO and their presidential candidate at the time, replied:
“Far from excluding young girls, the law makes it possible for everyone to attend school, and, for those who do not want to wear the veil, to maintain this place of liberty....
“It is one thing that women want to wear [the headscarf], but it is something else when this discriminatory fact is sanctioned by society....
“We do not criticize your approach in the name of secularism or in the name of fighting against religion, we do so in the name of women’s struggle for their emancipation. This will not be achieved through sanctioning the wearing of the veil in the public sphere, but on the contrary by allowing those who do not want to wear it, to not do so....
“Thus our solidarity goes above all to the women and girls who have the courage to resist these pressures, to those who want to lead their lives freely with uncovered faces and who see their freedom being restricted.”
Arthaud refuses to “sanction” the wearing of the headscarf in the public sphere and opposes veiled mothers accompanying their children. In light of this and of their reaction to the Baby Loup decision, it seems that Lutte Ouvrière’s rallying call “Against unemployment, ban layoffs” has its limits. Their “solidarity” doesn’t extend to women wearing the headscarf, many of whom are among the poorest and most oppressed women in French society. As if preventing veiled girls from attending school or preventing women from going to work—driving them back into the home—was a way to fight women’s oppression! Behind such discrimination and exclusion is the grousing of Valls & Co. that these women don’t want to assimilate into their precious Republic.
For LO to call the public school system a “place of liberty” shows their reformism on this question. It also is a reflection of the fact that they have a strong base among teachers. Schools are in fact key institutions for maintaining capitalist rule—teaching children of the ruling class how to rule and children of the oppressed that they have to accept subjugation to bourgeois authority or get kicked out. Nathalie Arthaud teaches in Aubervilliers, a heavily immigrant city where many mothers wear the headscarf. Arthaud is not blind to reality but she willfully deceives herself (and more importantly, her supporters) with her “secularist” bias.
LO’s refusal to understand special oppression—and to understand that the most oppressed choose to wear the headscarf—makes them see veiled women as militant ideologues trying to islamicize France. Some of these women are immigrants, who are continuing the oppressive religious practices of their countries of origin where Islam is the state religion. Others choose to wear the headscarf, consciously or not, in defiance of the racist exclusion they experience under French capitalism and to find some consolation for their ordeal and stigmatization. In neither case can LO’s parroting of the racist campaign against “green fascism” begin to address either the material oppression of these women or their backward religious views; it can only reinforce them.
Women’s oppression is rooted in class society. The historical function of the family under capitalism is to transmit private property to “legitimate” heirs through inheritance (which requires monogamy on the part of the wife) as well as to instill respect for authority and obedience to the code of bourgeois morality. That is why we maintain that ultimately women’s liberation can be won only through socialist revolution. A workers state would strive to provide round-the-clock childcare, communal cafeterias and kitchens, laundries and free, quality health care, all of which would in time replace the social functions of the family and allow women to fully participate in social life.
For New October Revolutions!
We draw our inspiration from the Bolshevik Party’s work for women’s liberation. In a very different context from imperialist and “secular” France, the atheist Bolshevik women leaders, under the direction of the Zhenotdel (Department of Working Women and Peasant Women) donned the veil themselves to go among the terribly oppressed women of Soviet Central Asia in order to educate and liberate them. It was extremely dangerous work and many Bolshevik women organizers were murdered. As we wrote in Spartacist:
“The creation of a planned, collectivized economy permitted the workers state to invest the surplus from the more advanced west in the more backward east and thereby begin to lay the basis for the equality of peoples in the Soviet Union. This is clearly seen when one looks at the vital statistics in the republics of the former Soviet Union on one side of the border and compares them with Afghanistan on the other side of the border. On the Soviet side, women were no longer imprisoned in the veil, they were literate; on the Afghan side of the border they were largely illiterate and the statistics for infant mortality and life expectancy were dramatically different on the two sides of the frontier.”
After the Soviet Red Army intervened in Afghanistan in 1979 at the request of its government, women could get an education. They became teachers, nurses, soldiers. But as part of the imperialist drive to restore capitalism in the Soviet Union, the U.S. armed the Islamic reactionaries who imprisoned women in the burqa [head-to-toe veil] and threw acid in the face of those teaching girls how to read and write. (Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders and other French “humanitarian” organizations linked up with the French secret services to aid the Muslim “resistance.”) In Afghanistan, the veil was a matter of life and death for women. Yet Lutte Ouvrière condemned the Soviet intervention (a position they continue to uphold today), comparing the Red Army’s progressive act with the rape of Vietnam by the French and later the American imperialists. So much for these self-professed champions of women’s rights.
We think another world is possible—but here, not in heaven, and not while the capitalist system remains intact. Unlike our reformist opponents, we state the truth. However distant this perspective may appear today, only through a proletarian socialist revolution can we begin to build a society free of hunger, war and racism; a world where men and women will no longer need to take refuge in religious fantasies to escape the harsh reality of this capitalist society of oppression and misery. To that end, we fight to uphold a revolutionary program and to build an international party committed to bringing the working class to power.