Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 October 2018
In July 2010, following a year-long nationwide debate over Islamic veiling, the French government passed a law prohibiting facial coverings in all public spaces. Prior research attributes this and other restrictive laws to France's republican secular tradition. This article takes a different approach. Building on literature that sees electoral politics as a site for articulating, rather than merely reflecting, social identities, I argue that the 2010 ban arose in significant part out of political parties’ struggles to demarcate the boundaries of legitimate politics in the face of an ultra-right electoral threat. Specifically, I show that in seeking to prevent the ultra-right National Front party from monopolizing the religious signs issue, France's major right and left parties agreed to portray republicanism as requiring the exclusion of face veiling from public space. Because it was forged in conflict, however, the consensus thus generated is highly fractured and unstable. It conceals ongoing conflict, both between and within political parties, over the precise meaning(s) of French republican nationhood. The findings thus underscore the relationship between boundary-drawing in the political sphere and the process of demarcating the cultural and political boundaries of nationhood in contexts of immigrant diversity.