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Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: Examining France’s Ban on Veils

Posted by Yesenia Rascón on

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” are three words that are often recognizable as the French national motto, even to those otherwise uninformed on Francophone culture. Though the motto originates from the French Revolution of 1789, it continues to be instilled in French politics today, which demonstrates that the French government is still particularly rooted in the events that occurred over 200 years ago. The documents of the French Revolution, specifically “On the Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” and “On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy” by Maximilien Robespierre, though from distinct thinkers and different periods leading to, during, and after the revolution, all agree on one basic duty of the government: to protect the will of the community, even if that means disregarding the will of the individual.


In 18th century France, the will of the community generally referred to the abolition of privileges and the protection of the Third Estate, which as Abbé Sieyès affirmed, is “everything.” The Third Estate, meaning everyone who was not a part of the nobility or the clergy, did not have any representation or rights though they were the majority, thus it made sense that the Revolution emphasized equality and community. However, Rousseau and Robespierre surely did not predict a large influx of Muslims in years to come, which would decisively change the concept of equality and “French-ness.” France’s polemic relationship with its Muslim community can be illustrated in the 2011 public ban on the full-face veil, which many Muslims consider a religious obligation. The French government, with widespread support from French non-Muslims, claims to preserve French culture and women equality in a secular country. French Muslims, many of whom are citizens and love France just as much as a français de souche (a French person of French ethnic heritage), see the veil ban as a violation of their freedom of expression, and as discriminating one gender of one religion. By analyzing the three aforementioned documents of the French Revolution, we will conclude whether or not the ban on the veil in France is valid, as seen through the government’s main stance on community through culture, secularity, and centralization.

One argument in support of the French ban on the veil is that it preserves French culture. In fact, one of the consequences of illegally wearing a full-face veil in France is citizenship lessons, to further inculcate the French cultural values. Culture is a concept of a community, and it is often represented with the human body. “On the Social Contract,” written by Rousseau in 1762, states that “this act of association produces a moral and collective body,” (148) which creates a “public person.” The terms “body” and “person” humanize the community, thus reiterating unity and destruction if separated. As Rousseau continues, “one cannot harm one of the members without attacking the whole body.” Robespierre, France’s leader during the Reign of Terror, also humanizes the law in “On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy,” (1794) where he says that “all that tends to stir the love of country, to purify morals and customs, to elevate souls, to direct the passions of the human heart toward the public interest, ought to be adopted or established by you.” Laws should be correlated with “the passions of the human heart.”

Furthermore, culture is also associated with love of and pride in a country, as Robespierre goes on to prove. He believes virtue is “nothing other than the love of country and of its laws…it follows that the love of country necessarily includes the love of equality.” Robespierre’s point is an incredibly important one: one cannot love his country if he does not love its laws, and hence one cannot love his country if he does not love equality. This concept directly concerns Muslims in France, who are considered less French if they don’t respect France’s law on the veil, or what the French perceive to be equality. The fact that French Muslims have to take culture and citizenship workshops in a country that they were born and raised in seems a bit absurd, but in the French government, culture and law are almost synonymous. Rousseau and Robespierre’s usage of humanity and love to promote law-abiding citizens reflects the government’s emphasis on law as culture, which insinuates to French Muslims that if they don’t love French law, they don’t love France and are not a part of its culture or community.

A main concern of the French government in regard to the veil in Islam is that it threatens France’s secularity. Prior to the Revolution, France was led by abusive monarchs who derived their power from God, which was problematic, because as Rousseau states, “God in his anger gives us bad kings, and they must be endured as punishments from heaven.” (186) According to Rousseau, with a monarchy, the people’s interests are not taken into account, but rather those of God, which are not always compatible. Thus creating a strongly secular state was a priority of the new French government, to assure that the community’s interests were honored. However, the revolutionary documents made it clear that secularity meant respect for all religions. “On the Social Contract” declares that “now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of the citizen.” (227) Secularity only prohibits an “exclusive national religion,” while it strongly promotes religious tolerance.

The tenth article in “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” of 1789, the preface to the French Constitution, states that “no man ought to be molested on account of his opinions, not even on account of his religious opinions, provided his avowal of them does not disturb the public order established by law.” Accordingly, it seems that the wearing of the veil by Muslims should be allowed since it is a form of religious tolerance and freedom of expression. However, both sections of the “Social Contract” and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” that confront religion give very important exceptions to religious tolerance: religious intolerance is acceptable if the dogmas threaten “the duties of the citizens” or “the public order established by law.” Many supporters of the ban do see the veil as a threat- to citizenship, public safety, and public order. A face veil can lead to a higher crime and robbery rate, since the criminals are unidentifiable, thus creating public danger. Even if the veil itself is not threatening, it is the manifestation of the greater dogmatic threat of Islam, which prioritizes God over people, and is impermissible in a state whose main duty is the protection of the community. Though the revolutionary documents promote religious tolerance and freedom of expression, they make an exception in the name of communal order, which is reflected in the ban of the veil.

By completely abolishing any sort of religious power, the French government in effect gave complete authority to the nation, leading to an extremely centralized state. Article three of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” affirms that “the nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty.” The nation, which is comprised of the community, gives its complete trust to the government and assumes that it will legitimize its will. As Rousseau argues, “the social compact gives the body politic an absolute power over all its members, and it is the same power which, as I have said, is directed by the general will and bears the name sovereignty.” (156) The government rightfully has “absolute power” over a nation, because as Rousseau explains, the people do not really know what they want, so a government that serves as a representation of the people is always right; “only the force of the state brings about the liberty of its members.” As the Declaration reiterates, the government is necessary “to give security to the rights of men and of citizens,” and “is instituted for the benefit of the community and not for the particular benefit of the persons to whom it is intrusted.” The French revolutionary documents trust the government to represent the nation, and hence give the government all power. In regards to the public ban on the veil, the Muslim community must respect the government and trust that they are more knowledgeable of their interests than the Muslims themselves, and that the government is, in fact, protecting the Muslim interest (especially women liberation). Thus a ban on the veil is inarguably right because the government is always right and the people are oftentimes wrong.

The documents of the French Revolution all articulate that the main duty of the government is to promote and protect the community. One of the goals of the Revolution, according to Robespierre, was to “substitute good men for good society.” The public interest became the main agenda of the French government and continues to be such today. In regards to the community’s interests in culture, secularity, and centralization, the French government is, in fact, expressing “the will of the community” with the ban on the full-face veil. The vast majority of the French population supported the ban, believing it preserves French culture, secularity, and trust in the government. However, though the ban is completely supported by the law and the will of the community, it still does not sit well. Thousands of Muslims who are otherwise perfectly good French citizens, filled with love and pride, have been targeted for their appearance.

Wearing a veil does not automatically mean Radical Islam or Muslim Separatism; it is more often a personal choice, one that increasingly more women are making on their own. As Karima, a French-born woman wrote, “It’s as if I was married to a man who mistreated me, but I’m still in love with him. It’s as if he had an identity crisis, and I would still stay with him after 31 years of marriage.” Just as French non-Muslims inculcate love and humanity to express their French communal culture, Muslims too feel betrayed by France, their country, and their spouse. A duty of the government should be to adapt itself to the people over time, because liberty, equality, and fraternity do not mean the same things they meant in 1789, and neither does community. Rousseau correctly defined a people “suited for legislation” as “one that brings together the stability of an ancient people and the docility of a new people.” (170) In accordance, the French government should merge the established culture of France with the growing culture of Muslim citizens to create a new community where there is liberty of appearance, equality of opportunity, and fraternity in respect.

This article was written by Yesenia Rascón, a graduate of Columbia University with a passion for history.  


  • Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings (Hackett)
  • “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” from the online CC Reader
  • Robespierre, “On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy” from the online CC Reader
  • Sieyes, “What is the Third Estate” from the online CC Reade

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