Frantz Fanon wrote of the French occupation of Algeria: “[The] veil, one of the elements of the traditional Algerian garb, was to become the bone of contention in a grandiose battle, on account of which the occupation forces were to mobilise their most powerful and most varied resources, and in the course of which the colonised were to display a surprising force of inertia”.

Under the colonial administration of the 1930s, ethnologists and sociologists – officials of French administration who were committed to destroying any cultural and religious symbol that could form the material for a national struggle – turned the veil into an object of “rational enquiry”.

It was a strategy to domesticate resistance. Social workers advised women to take off the garment, as they handed out crumbs of charity. The French Republic attacked the colonised, their habits of dress and religious symbols, in the name of “emancipating” them from archaic social practices. This was an effort to destroy a culture – when veils weren’t being torn off, this was the “soft” side of brutal carnage that took over a million Algerian lives.

Forty years after the Algerians finally won their independence, the veil again came under ferocious attack in France, in the guise of defending laïcité and the republic. Pierre Bourdieu called it “the imperialism of the universal … the idea that France was the bearer of reason and universal values”. Former prime minister François Fillon, the conservative right’s candidate in this year’s presidential elections, captured this idea when he said that “colonisation was about sharing the culture of France with other people”.

“A lot of people do not see that there was a huge rupture in the conception of laïcité in France, at the turn of the 1990s and 2000s”, says Ugo Palheta, editor of the journal Contretemps, referring to the banning of religious signs in schools, which led to the Islamophobic ban on the veil in 2004.

Classical laïcité had not been about imposing religious neutrality on pupils or their parents. The separation of church and state, established in 1905, upheld two principles of laïcité: the guarantee of freedom of conscience and equality before the state. The law of 1905 targeted agents and employees of the state – especially teachers. It did not concern the pupils, but the school curriculum, the textbook material and the insignia of the local schools. However, there was a shift in the late 1980s and early 1990s:

“The debate around laïcité turned from one debate, which was about the private schools and how … the state funds them. The debate moves from this onto another debate, which was brought about in the late 1980s, especially in 1989 with what has been called ‘the veil affair of Creil’, a place in the Oise [a department in the north of France], where two girls were expelled from junior high school.

“At that time, and this is interesting because you see how there was a rupture afterwards, the Council of State, which is the highest juridical authority in France, said that it wasn’t legal to expel the two girls because they were wearing the hijab. So at that point the Council of State still upheld that laïcité was about guaranteeing the freedom of conscience and not prohibition. Laïcité was called a ‘regime of freedom’ by its founders … It was not conceived as a regime of constraint.”

Palheta refers to Jean Baubérot, a historian of laïcité. He was the sole member of the Stasi Commission (established in 2003) to refuse to vote for the ban on the veil in schools. His work demonstrates that by the 2004 ban, a new, thoroughly Islamophobic, version of laïcité had been established.

This is not to idealise early laïcité. The Ferry laws of 1881-82 – measures that introduced the principle that primary education should be free, compulsory and secular – were a crucial ingredient in the formation of a French national identity inseparable from the project of colonialism and class discipline.

The ideal was always in the service of capital, but today, when sections of the left in France consent to Islamophobia in the name of this ideal, it is important to see how this new laïcité emerged, and understand the role it plays for the French capitalist class and its political representatives. Palheta explains:

“In the beginning of the 2000s, in an international context of rising Islamophobia (coming especially from intellectuals and politicians), we’ve seen in France a new convergence between the Socialist Party and Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy’s right wing party [the Republicans]. One figure, François Baroin [a former minister and currently the mayor of Troyes], said that what was needed was a ‘new laïcité’. At least he was honest on that, and he is one of the only to be honest on that – that the laïcité in France since the 2004 law is the product of a political rupture. The figures from the Socialist Party or the right wing parties always say that they are in continuity with the tradition of laïcité in France … The conception of laïcité was changed and it became completely out of control from that point onwards.

“For example, in 2012, the minister of education put out an administrative document, saying that parents shouldn’t be allowed to accompany students on school visits – for example in museums, or public places – while expressing religious beliefs, or wearing some ostensible signs of religious belonging. It was directed against Muslim mothers who wear the hijab. Another example is the debate over the long black skirts that some girls wear: in some schools, girls wearing this kind of skirt have been expelled because it was considered a religious sign. Same thing for the bandana: in some schools it is measured to see if it is a religious sign or not. It is getting really crazy and, as you can see, absurd.

“The most absurd thing is the huge public debate that has taken place for years now over the food in school canteens. In one of his last speeches during the right wing primaries last year, Sarkozy said that those students – especially Muslim pupils – who don’t eat pork should be given a second serve of potato chips … While the far right was violently opposed to ‘classical laïcité’ during the 20th century, the National Front is in favour of this new laïcité  because it is directed against Muslims. Mainstream parties created a laïcité that the National Front can accept, and which reinforces them because it gives them a lot of new and acceptable ‘arguments’ against migrants and their descendants from the ex-colonies of France.”

So if Islamophobia now plays a central role in the new laïcité, what function does it serve?

Prior to the 2004 ban, the conservative Chirac-Raffarin government had been weakened by working class mobilisations against attacks on pensions. Its members cultivated the conversation about laïcité because they knew that the issue would divide the left politically. “It divided the Socialist Party. It divided the Communist Party. It divided the far left”, says Palheta. “It divided everyone on the left, every organisation, every union, even the anti-racist associations and the human rights leagues. Everyone was divided on this question. It was a strategic move. And they knew that this division was going to last. They did it, and it worked very well for them.”

Before the pension struggle and the ban on the hijab, voguish and hack intellectuals – like Alain Finkielkraut and Regis Debray (who turned militant nationalist after being a theoretician of the foquista guerrilla struggle) – had already done a great deal of work to convince people that the veil should be banned from schools. They fomented a moral panic, and charged that then education minister Lionel Jospin’s decision not to expel the students in the 1989 veil affair of Creil was akin to a Munich Agreement (when France and England accepted Nazi Germany’s claim over part of Czechoslovakia in 1938) against the republic.

National identity is now being redefined in France. Islamophobia is the key weapon being used by the ruling class to deepen divisions through structural discrimination in schools, health, housing and the labour force. The aim, according to Palheta, is to “build a new alliance, a new bloc between the ruling class and some fractions of the working class … It is a way of building an [imaginary] alliance with people who are suffering from exploitation on the basis of hatred for Muslims”.

Palheta ties the specificity of Islamophobic oppression to France’s class structure. This is important. It isn’t enough to see Islamophobia as tied to its earlier imperialist project, without taking into consideration the present domestic needs of the ruling class and their neoliberal vision of French society:

“What explains the violence of Islamophobic attacks and the racist offensive of the ruling class is that they were unable to fully impose the neoliberal agenda because of the cycle of mass struggles that took place in France mostly between 1995 and 2010. The imposition of the neoliberal agenda was delayed, and the only way to build political legitimacy and a hegemonic bloc was to rely on nationalist and racist ideas. Islamophobia appeared as the main tool they had at their disposal.

“They were unable to convert the French social formation to neoliberalism like the ruling classes did in Britain with Thatcher and Blair, or Schröder in Germany, so they had to figure out a way of building a new hegemony in France. That’s why racism became so prominent here in the political strategies of the French ruling class, which has rebuilt the national identity around Islamophobia. There’s a paradox here: it’s because of the strength of social struggles – even if they were not strong enough to put up an alternative to the austerity and neoliberal agenda, but strong enough to delay the imposition of the neoliberal agenda – that France became the capital of reaction in Europe.”

It is therefore urgent to struggle against Islamophobia and to link it to the broader class struggle. Attacks against Muslims are increasing – from street assaults on girls and women wearing the hijab, to the hundreds of girls who can’t go to school because of the veil ban. For Palheta, “leading struggles to end the attacks and protect Muslims and be part of Muslims protecting themselves against attacks” is a priority. “The first thing is this: struggling against a specific form of oppression that hurts millions of people.”

Piled onto the wave of Islamophobia is the state of emergency, in effect since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which gives exceptional powers to the president and has intensified the state’s targeting of people living and working in working class neighbourhoods, and especially Muslims working and living in segregated working class and non-white neighbourhoods.

The new nationalism is strengthened by the idea of an internal enemy; a fifth column threatening national cohesion. Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (which imagined a dystopian France led by Muslims) and Eric Zemmour’s (the French equivalent of Australia’s Andrew Bolt or the US’s Ann Coulter) litany of best sellers are examples of a nationalist panic. Recent developments have added a new layer to the racism that already existed in the post-colonial state, which stigmatised Black and North African populations. The far right, the right and the republican left are now on the offensive.

All this makes for high stakes in the fight against Islamophobia.