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  • Myriam Hunter-Henin (a1)


This article examines the controversies over and implications of the 2010 French ban on the covering of the face. It carries out an internal critique of the new law and, in a broader European context, questions its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights. It argues that the ban has strayed away from the confines of laïcité (the separation of State and religion in the public sphere) by encompassing activities and people who in no way emanate from the State. Far from being a flagship of a secularism—à la française—or a French way of life, the ban—it is argued—goes against entrenched French legal traditions and unduly conflates the concept of national identity at the cost of individual liberties, thus forgetting the true goal of secularism: the conciliation of different beliefs and values. Assuming that the defence of secularism is nevertheless (for reasons we will explore) upheld by the European Court of Human Rights as a legitimate aim pursued by the law, the French ban, it is argued, is likely to fall foul of European requirements for lack of proportionality.



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2 Fadel, MH, ‘Public Reason as a Strategy for Principled Reconciliation: The Case for Islamic Law and International Human Rights Law’ (2008) 8 ChiJIntlL 1.

4 See Willaime, J-P, ‘Le Voile intégral: approches européennes et réactions nord-américaines’, in La Laïcité à l’épreuve du voile intégral, La Documentation française (2010) 5365.

5 For a comparative analysis of burqa bans in France, Belgium and concept legislation in The Netherlands, see van der Schyff, G and Overbeeke, A, ‘Exercising Religious Freedom in the Public Space: a Comparative and European Convention Analysis of General Burqa Bans’ (2011) 7 EuConst 424–52.

6 Loi no 2010–1192 interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l'espace public of 11 October 2010, JO 12 October 2010.

7 Loi visant à interdire le port de tout vêtement cachant totalement ou de manière principale le visage of 1 June 2011, JO Le Moniteur 13 July 2011.

9 See <> accessed 13 September 2011.

10 <> accessed 4 June 2012.

11 Bhandar, B, ‘The Ties that Bind Multiculturalism and Secularism Reconsidered’ (2009) 36 Journal of Law and Society 325.

12 See Gaudreault-DesBiens, J-F and Karazivan, N, ‘The “Public” and The “Private” in the Common Law and Civil Law Traditions. Legal Traditions as Reasoning Templates for the Regulation of Religion’ (2011) Law and Religion e-Journal, available at <>.

13 The term ‘burqa’ will be used throughout this article in a broad sense to include any forms of Islamic veils covering the face that is burqa in a strict sense as well as niqab.

14 Loi no 2004–228 of 15 March 2004, JO 17 March 2004, 5190.

15 ECHR 4 December 2008 Kervanci v France 31645/04 and Dogru v France 27058/05, RTD civ (2009) 1049–52.

16 See Report of July 2005 by Mme Hanifa Chérifi, quoted in the Report on the full Islamic veil, infra (n 25) 91.

17 Loi no 2010–1192, JO 12 October 2010, 18344.

18 Conseil Constitutionnel 7 October 2010, JO 12 October 2010, 18345.

19 Cf A Chrisafis, ‘Nicolas Sarkozy says Islamic veils are not welcome in France’ The Guardian 23 June 2009 available at <> accessed 27 September 2011.

21 M Parris, ‘Never Mind What the Woman Thinks. Wearing the Veil is Offensive to Me’ The Times 27 August 2005, available at <–08/msg00663.html> accessed 30 June 2012.

22 On this issue of whether resort to law is the proper response, see Tariq Ramadan, in conversation with members of the Pew Research Forum in the United States: ‘The answer is not to come with law to prevent people … It's not the way forward … Speak more about education, psychology … we have to be very cautious not to translate every sensitive issue into a legal issue. We are wrong by doing this’, available at <> accessed 4 June 2012, quoted in R Grillo and P Shah, ‘Reasons to Ban? The Anti-Burqa Movement in Western Europe’, Max Planck Working Papers 12-05, <> accessed 30 June 2012.

23 Rapport sur les solutions juridiques d'interdiction du port du voile intégral 25 March 2010, JCP 2010, act 406, comments by A Levade.

24 Conseil d'Etat, Report (n 23) 35.

25 Mission d'information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national, Report submitted to the President of the National Assembly 26 January 2010, JCP 2010, act 142, comments by A Levade.

26 Conseil d'Etat, Report (n 23) 29.

27 A similar proposal had already been submitted by the party UMP 5 February 2010 (proposition de loi AN no 2283).

28 The Law was voted by an overwhelming 335/1 majority before the Lower House of the French Parliament and a 246/1 majority before the Upper House.

29 Conseil Constitutionnel 7 October 2010, (n 18).

30 See J Rivero, ‘La notion juridique de laïcité’ (Recueil Dalloz 1949) 137.

31 JO 11 December 1905; On the origins of the Act, see Foyer, J, ‘La Genèse de la loi de séparation’ in La Laïcité (2005) Archives de Philosophie du droit vol 48, 7583.

32 Under the 1959 Debré Law. See Poucet, B (ed), La loi Debré, paradoxes de l'Etat éducateur? (CRDP 2001).

33 Naturally, the dichotomy between ‘religious parents’ and ‘non-religious’ parents is too crude. There are various degrees of religiosity and many parents with strong religious convictions choose the state school system whereas many parents with a vague religious commitment choose to send their children to Catholic schools. See B Chélini-Pont, ‘The French Model: Tensions between Laïc and Religious Allegiances in French State and Catholic Schools’, chap 7 in Myriam Hunter-Henin (ed), Religious Freedoms and Education in Europe (Ashgate 2012) 153–69.

34 See n 32.

35 See n 96.

36 Troper, M, ‘French Secularism or Laïcité’ (1999–2000) 21 Cardozo Law Review 1272–3.

37 Cf suggesting a bank holiday dedicated to Laïcité on 9 December, date of the 1905 Act on the separation of Church and State, Vitel, PMP from the party UMP (Var), Question to the Prime Minister no 68744, JO 19 January 2010, 443.

38 See Report, (n 25) 95–122. See also, Report by the Conseil d'Etat, (n 23) 17.

39 See Willaime, J-P, Le Retour du religieux dans la sphère publique. Vers une laïcité de reconnaissance et de dialogue (Editions Olivetan 2008).

40 See A Ferrari, ‘De la politique à la technique: laïcité narrative et laïcité du droit. Pour une comparaison France/Italie’ in B Basdevant-Gaudemet and F Jankowiak (eds), Le Droit ecclésiatique en Europe et à ses marges XVIIIe–XXe siècles (2009) 333–45.

41 In the case of Lautsi v Italy (App no 30814/06), the Grand Chamber, overruling the first Chamber's decision of 3 November 2009, held on 18 March 2011 that the presence of crucifixes in the classrooms of Italian state schools was acceptable despite the principle of laïcité contained in the Italian Constitution.

42 ibid para 70.

43 ibid paras 72 and 73.

44 ibid para 74.

45 See Part IV.

46 See leading to the same conclusion the comparison between the French and the Italian notions of laïcité (n 40).

47 On the Canadian context, see the Bouchard/Taylor Committee Report on reasonable accommodations, esp chap 7 (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2008) available at <> accessed 30 June 2012.

48 ibid chap 6 on ‘Interculturalism’.

49 On the liberal historical origins of laïcité, see Weil, P, ‘Why French Laïcité is Liberal’ (2009) 30 Cardozo Law Review 2699. See also note 36.

50 See n 37.

51 See CE avis 3 May 2000 Mlle Marteaux, RFDA 2001, 141, Conclusions R Schwartz.

52 For further illustration of the divide, see the contrasting views of D Schnapper, La Démocratie providentielle. Essai sur l’égalité contemporaine (2000) and J-P Willaime (n 39).

53 Cf CE 27 November 1989 Avis, RFDA 1990, 1, J Rivero; AJDA 1990, 39–42; Bell, J, ‘Religious Observance in Secular Schools: A French Solution’ (1990) 2 Education and the Law 121–8.

54 See for example, X Darcos' comments reported in MP Clément, Rapport n 1381, JOAN, Doc Session 2004, 9 and 10. Contra, Durand-Pringorgne, C, ‘Le Port des signes extérieurs de convictions religieuses à l’école : une jurisprudence affirmée…, une jurisprudence contestée’ (1997) RFDA, 151–72.

55 Cf emphasizing the need to take into account the circumstances of the case, CE 27 November 1996 (3 cases) JCP 1997 II 22 808, B Seiller.

56 Rapport de la Commission présidée par M. Bernard Stasi de réflexion sur l'application du principe de laïcité dans la République submitted 11 December 2003, La Documentation française (2004).

57 Loi no 2004–228 of 15 March 2004 (n 14).

58 Cf JAN Condorcet, Cinq mémoires sur l'instruction publique (1791), eds C Coutel and C Kintzler (Flammarion 1994).

59 Cf Barnard, HC, Education and the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press 1969). The presence of documentation relating to the Ferry Laws on the official site of the French Senate illustrates the importance of the Ferry laws in the French psyche: available at <> accessed 18 March 2012.

60 Baubérot, J, quoted by D McGoldrick, Human Rights and Religion. The Islamic Headscarf Debate in Europe (Hart Publishing 2006) 76.

61 See Williams, K, ‘Religious Worldviews and the Common School. The French Dilemma’ (2007) 41 Journal of Philosophy of Education 675–92.

62 Debray, R, Ce que nous voile le voile. La République et le sacré (Gallimard, Paris, 2004) 32.

63 G Bachelard, ‘Valeur morale de la culture scientifique’ in Didier Gil (ed), Bachelard et la Culture Scientifique (Presses Universitaires de France 1993) (author's translation).

64 Schwartz, R, Interview published in La Laïcité à l’épreuve du voile intégral, La Documentation française no 364 (2010) 17 (author's translation).

65 For a comparable distinction but in respect of pluralism/plurality, see Beckford, J, Social Theory of Religion (Cambridge University Press 2003).

66 Report (n 25) 95–122.

67 J-P Sueur, JO Sénat CR 15 September 2010, 6755 (author's translation).

68 Stasi Report (n 56) section 3.3.1, p 57; section, p 99 and ff.

69 See Liogier, R, Une Laïcité légitime. La France et ses religions d'Etat (Médicis Entrelacs 2006).

70 Arguably, the prohibition should then even extend to the private sphere. The restriction to the public sphere however broadly construed stands in contradiction with the announced goal to protect women's dignity. This restriction suggests that the prohibition is less about protecting dignity than it is about protecting ‘Republican values’ under an inflated conception of public policy (see Part III).

71 But the 2004 prohibition applies to pupils over 18 who are still in secondary schools whether before or after Baccalauréat (A levels). This uniform application of the 2004 ban throughout state schools suggests that the prohibition of religious symbols is less about protecting dignity than it is about enforcing laïcité throughout the public school sector (see Part I).

72 Interview of Sami Amghar before the ‘Committee on the full veil’ Report (n 25) 467 (author's translation).

73 See de Béchillon, D, ‘Voile intégral: éloge du Conseil d'Etat en théoricien des droits fondamentaux’ (2010) RFDA 467–8.

74 See on this crucial question of empirical evidence, <> accessed 20 March 2012.

75 See Nancy, J-L, ‘Church, State, Resistance’ (2007) 34 Journal of Law and Society 7. Also on the tensions between ‘piety’ and ‘polity’, Motha, S, ‘Veiled Women and the Affect of Religion in Democracy’ (2007) 34 Journal of Law and Society 139–62.

76 E Lévinas, Ethique et Infini (Fayard 1982).

77 CE Ass 27 October 1995 Commune de Morsang-sur-Orge, also known as ‘l'affaire du lancer de nains’, Grands arrêts de la jurisprudence administrative, 17th ed, n 98. Comments by O Cayla, ‘Le Coup d'Etat de droit’ (1998) Le Débat 108.

78 See M Hunter-Henin, ‘Surrogacy. Is There a Room for a New Liberty between the French prohibitive Position and the English Ambivalence’ in M Freeman (ed), Law and Bioethics (OUP 2008) 329–57.

79 See Part IV.

80 Conseil d'Etat, Report (n 23) 20.

81 See for example, CEDH 17 February 2005 KA and AD v Belgium, no 42758/98. For a theoretical perspective, Dworkin, R, Taking Rights Seriously (Harvard University Press 1977) 272–3.

82 Liogier, R, ‘Laïcité on the Edge in France: Between the Theory of Church-State Separation and the Praxis of State-Church Confusion’ (2009) 9 Macquarie Law Journal 40.

85 Recommendation and Resolution no 1743 both entitled ‘Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia in Europe’ of 23 June 2010 available at <> accessed 4 June2012 and <> accessed 4 June 2012.

86 Admittedly, one does so to prohibit for example the display of nudity in public spaces but I will argue that the ban on the burqa goes much further. See Part III.

87 Koussens, D, ‘Sous l'affaire de la burqa… quel visage de la laïcité française?’ (2009) 41 Sociologie et Sociétés 328.

88 See French MP Lionel Luca, Parliamentary debates of 19 May 2010, National Assembly.

89 See n 96.

90 See J Rawls' idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’ in Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press 1993) 150–4.

91 See Lévy, B-H, Le Testament de Dieu (Bernard Grasset 1979).

92 Beydoun, KA, ‘Laïcité, Liberalism and the Headscarf’ (2008) 10 Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 191.

93 For a distinction between laïcité as a narrative and laïcité as a legal concept, see A Ferrari (n 40). And more generally, Cover, R, ‘Foreword: Nomos and Narrative’ (1983) 97 HarvLRev 4–5.

94 On the importance for human rights to study people's motivation in depth, see Vakulenko, A, ‘Islamic Headscarves and the European Convention on Human Rights: an Intersectional Perspective’ (2007) 16 Social and Legal Studies 183–99.

95 Lamine, A-S, ‘Les Formes actuelles du retour du religieux’ in La Laïcité à l’épreuve du voile, La Documentation française no 364 (2010) 32.

96 Amghar, S, ‘Le Salafisme en France: de la révolution islamique à la révolution conservatrice’ (2008) 3 Critique internationale 95113.

97 See Foessel, M, Etat de vigilance. Critique de la banalité sécuritaire (Broché 2010).

98 See D de Béchillon (n 73) 470.

99 Conseil constitutionnel of 7 October 2010 (n 18), considérant 3.

100 See n 14.

101 CE 3 May 2000 avis Mlle Marteaux (n 51).

102 Décret no 2009-724 of 19 June 2009.

103 For a full list see the Conseil d'Etat's Report (n 23).

104 The Conseil constitutionnel made a merely symbolic reference to art 4 which states that ‘Liberty is the right to do everything that does not cause harm to others. Thus, each and every human being enjoys natural liberties that know of no other bounds but the very same rights and liberties enjoyed by other members of society. These boundaries must be determined by the legislator.’ (author's translation)

105 See Levade, A, ‘Le Conseil d'Etat aux prises avec le voile intégralJCP 2010, 754.

106 See Decision of the Conseil constitutionnel no 93-325 DC of 13 August 1993.

107 Loi no 97-1027 of 24 August 1993 (loi relative à la maîtrise de l'immigration et aux conditions d'entrée, d'accueil et de séjour des étrangers en France) JO 29 August 1993.

108 CE 27 June 2008 Mme Machbour, no 286798.

109 Contra, Mullally, S, ‘Civic Integration, Migrant Women and the Veil: at the Limits of Rights’ (2011) 74 MLR 27–56.

110 See ‘Citizenship Tests in a Post-National Era’ (2008) 10(1) International Journal of Multicultural Societies Special Issue.

111 Integration models of each country may thus not be so far apart as one sometimes thinks. But the emphasis on ‘common values’ may be more characteristic of the French Republican tradition, see Bowen (n 10) 11.

112 T Asad, ‘Trying to Understand French Secularism’ in H de Vries and LE Sullivan (eds) Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (Fordham University Press 2006) 495.

113 See p 1.

114 Often described as a true multicultural system, Britain actually also seeks at times a superseding unity: see for example debates on Britishness and British values, S Lee, , ‘Gordon Brown and the “British Way”’ (2006) 77 The Political Quarterly 369–78.

115 With the exception of places of worship open to the public, see Conseil Constitutionnel 7 October 2010, considérant 5, (n 18).

116 See A Levade, praising the absolute scope of the law and criticizing by contrast the position recommended by the Conseil d'Etat for its complexity and its cautious approach,: ‘Le Conseil d'Etat aux prises avec le voile intégral’ (n 105); see also, Levade, A, ‘Epilogue d'un débat juridique: l'interdiction de la dissimulation du visage dans l'espace public validée!’, JCP 2010, 19781981.

117 CE 8 October 2004 Union française pour la cohésion nationale, no 269704.

118 Conseil d'Etat Report (n 23) 32.

121 See M Hunter-Henin, ‘France. Horizontal Application of Human Rights in France. The Triumph of the European Convention on Human Rights’ in D Oliver and J Fedtke (eds), Human Rights and the Private Sphere – A Comparative Study (Routledge-Cavendish 2007) 98–124.

122 Indeed, the Cour de cassation has shown in the past that it is audacious enough to challenge new legislative moves when other supreme French national courts have behaved with greater reverence towards Parliament. See M Hunter-Henin, ‘Constitutional Developments and Human Rights in France: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’ (2011) 60 ICLQ 1–22.

123 See ECHR 17 February 2005 KA and AD v Belgium, no 42758/98 (but in the context of practices carried out in private).

124 ECHR Sahin v Turkey, App no 44774/98 [2004] 299 paras 97–8.

125 See n 135.

126 ECHR 4 December 2008 Kervanci v France, no 31645/04 and Dogru v France, no 27058/05 para 62.

127 See Brems, E, ‘Human Rights: Minimum and Maximum Perspectives’ (2009) 9 HRLRev 359–65.

128 Conseil constitutionnel 7 October 2010, (n 18), considérant 5.

129 See ECHR 23 February 2010 Ahmet Arslan and Others v Turkey, 41135/98, D.2010, 682–4, J-P Marguénaud.

130 See ECHR 26 September 1995 Vogt v Germany, 1996-IV, no 14, 21 EHRR 205; ECHR 20 May 1999 Rekvéni v Hungary, 25390/94.

131 See ECHR 15 February 2001 Dahlab v Switerland, 42393/98; ECHR 24 January 2006 Kurtulmuş v Turkey, 65500/01.

132 See (n 137).

133 Depending of course on the circumstances of the case put forward to Strasbourg as the ECtHR does not examine Acts in abstracto but in relation to their application to a particular case.

134 ECHR Refah Partisi v Turkey, no 41340/98, 41343/88 and 41344/98 [2003] 37 EHRR 1.

135 On the advice of the Conseil d'Etat. See Report, (n 23) 21.

136 Art 2.2 of the 2010 law provides that the ban will not apply to instances where the covering of the face is prescribed by other legislative or regulatory requirements; is mandated by health or professional reasons; or occurs in the context of sporting, artistic or traditional events.

137 Conseil constitutionnel, (n 18), considérant 5.

138 This vision inspired the French parliamentary resolution adopted on 11 May 2010 (Ass Nat XIII législature, TA no 459; JCP 2010, act 551, comments by Anne Levade) in which the full veil is described as a radical practice that is contrary to the values of the French Republic.

139 See for example, ECHR 26 October 2000 Hasan and Chaush v Bulgaria, para. 78.

140 On these Quranic origins, Barlas, A, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an (University of Texas Press 2002) 53.

141 A Levade (n 105) 756.

142 ibid.

143 See Fuller, L, The Morality of Law (Yale University Press 1969).

144 Save for the private sphere where the burqa however won't be felt needed.

145 See Part IV.

1 The title evokes Bowen's, John R illuminating book, Why the French Don't Like Headscarves, Islam, The State and Public Place (Princeton University Press, 2008).

I am indebted to Professor Maleiha Malik, Dr Ronan McCrea and Professor Dawn Oliver for their insightful comments on earlier drafts on this article. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful observations.


  • Myriam Hunter-Henin (a1)


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