Let's Go France! Veiled Women Have The Right To Run

The controversy over France's Decathlon athletic hijab is a symbol for misunderstood secularism. Let's leave the regulation of clothing to those who practice it so well, from Saudi Arabia to the Taliban.

Athlete wearing a hijab

PARIS — I have always loved strolling through the aisles of Decathlon, letting myself be tempted by all the sports I will never practice. I come home full of lycra clothing, which, I have to admit, generally ends up in my closet. Of course, I have a few reservations — I do not gravitate towards the outfits for shot put nor the athletic hijabs. But their presence on the shelves would not surprise me. To each their own. Hefty He-Men have the right to throw hammers and veiled women have the right to run, don't they? Apparently not, as decreed by the league of virtue of politics and media.

Since, in this case, the good sense of tolerance doesn't seem to be enough, let's review the two main arguments against this piece of cloth. First of all, secularism. When did secularism become synonymous with forbidden? We must read the work of historian Jean Bauberot to understand at which point the original concept of secularism became distorted. The law of 1905 is effectively more liberal than its current interpretation. Its author, Aristide Briand, opposed the "complete secularism" proposed by the Jacobins. He was not looking to promote an atheist state, but rather to allow the coexistence of many religions (the law explicitly targets the separation of church and state).

Decathlon's running hijab Photo: Lydia Guiros via Twitter

It was therefore not a question of distinguishing between a public space which would be neutral and a religious sphere which would be intimate! The deputies were opposed to the ban on wearing cassocks in public. "From this serf, from this slave, let us make a man," argued the author of this rejected amendment. It's the old Rousseauist reflex that we find today in response to the athletic hijab: to force men — and women — to be free. Secularism was not designed to strip citizens of their religious beliefs, but to enable them to practice their faith independently.

Obscurantism is opposed by the "sole power of reason and truth," Aristide Briand explained to those who wanted to eradicate it by decree. We must distinguish, on the one hand, secularism as political framework and, on the other hand, the process of secularization, the work of a socio-cultural dynamic. In other words, the better intellectual argument concerning the hijab is that we cannot stop anyone from wearing it, nor from doing sport.

Forcing men — and women — to be free.

The second argument is that of female emancipation. When a veil is mentioned, we see the worst machos become ardent feminists. Enough with the hypocrisy! Let's take a sartorial counter-example of better taste, that of the garter belt. Oscillating between pure pornography and sexy lingerie, it reflects male domination in the crudest way. Is it because it turns the woman into a tied-up prisoner waiting for the man, or because it turns her into a gift to unwrap, or because it strips her without having her undress? Still, the garter belt, which can be worn "voluntarily" or under the subtle constraint of a birthday gift, reproduces a secular pattern of patriarchal oppression.

Already during the times of the Hundred Years' War, Edward III of England joked about the garter of his favorite mistress, which fell at a ball: "Shame on him who thinks ill of it," he quipped, thus giving birth to the motto of the British monarchy. Sophia Loren, playing a prostitute, made it an essential part of her striptease in the movie Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, under the lascivious eyes of her client, Marcello Mastroianni. Yet, it does not seem like garter belts are the subject of violent campaigns on social media. Society has admitted that, whether visible or not, they belong to the private sphere, and that the roles of domination can sometimes be reversed in intimate conversations that cannot be judged. In what way is a demimondaine in a garter belt less subject to male desire than a single Muslim woman?

I have no sympathy for monotheism and I dream of living in a world finally free of transcendence and its rituals. But leave the regulation of clothing to those who practice it so well, from Saudi Arabia to the Taliban. If France has values, it's good to let its citizens believe in what they want, dress how they want, and define their own dignity.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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