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Opinion This Ramadan showed how France isn’t comfortable with Muslim athletes

Jaouen Hadjam fights for the ball during the French L1 football match between AJ Auxerre and FC Nantes in France on April 16. (Arnaud Finistre/AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

PARIS — In nominally secular France, Muslims who participate in public life always seem to struggle with observing the month of Ramadan in peace.

Nowhere has this been clearer than the world of sports, and particularly football, a point of national pride. But all too often, a national pastime quickly becomes an opportunity for officials to stigmatize Islam, a religion as French as any other.

Ramadan, of course, is the holy month when Muslims are expected to fast every day from sunrise to sunset. But sadly, it’s far more difficult than it should be to follow this command and to play soccer in France.

For starters, Nantes cut its new Algerian defender Jaouen Hadjam because he refused to stop fasting during home games. “There is no controversy,” said Antoine Kombouare, the team’s manager, defending his decision. “It is not a punishment. I set rules. It’s his choice, and I respect it.”

In a separate incident, the French Football Federation (FFF) sent a message to all referees. The FFF said: “It has been brought to the attention of the Federation of match interruptions following the breaking of the Ramadan fast. These interruptions do not respect the provisions of the statutes of the FFF.”

Events such as these put France at odds with our neighbors.

In Britain, for instance, the Premier League allows players to have a quick break for a bite. In Germany, the head of referees announced last year that he would support any club that would allow a Ramadan break. The Netherlands’s championship has also allowed players to break their fast, and no controversy followed when Italy and Spain likewise permitted athletes to eat according to their faiths during a match.

But not in France — France is somehow always the exception.

Once more, our country’s troubled relationship with anything related to the observance of Islam in public life sparks a controversy. “In 2023, a match can be stopped 20 minutes for any number of reasons, but not for a drink of water,” lamented football player Lucas Digne.

France has a peculiar approach to secularism — as we call it, “laïcité.” Under the auspices of our secularism, the FFF bans any “political, religious or ideological” discourse. They even threaten those who don’t respect that ideal with “disciplinary proceedings or prosecution.” But in what kind of society, truly, is drinking water or eating a snack a form of proselytism?

Worst of all, this is not even an accurate reading of France’s brand of secularism, which maintains not only the separation of church and state, but the neutrality of the state. As reiterated by Nicolas Cadène, a laïcité expert, football players, as private citizens who play for teams managed by private companies, do not have to be “neutral.” It would be absurd to insist that they separate themselves from their beliefs once they are on a field, as if the field somehow transforms them into different people or removes them from their individual identities.

This is not the first time the FFF has decided to go against an athlete’s most basic individual rights. The organization, for instance, does not allow female players to wear a hijab on the field, which contradicts FIFA’s global policy of allowing athletes to cover their heads as long as they match the color of their jerseys.

Granted, women wearing the hijab have long been seen as an issue in France. In 2004, France banned “ostentatious” religious signs, understood to include the hijab, in public schools. In 2010, it became the first European nation to ban face coverings — such as the niqab, which covers a woman’s face. And women who wear the headscarf regularly face unwarranted scrutiny in any form of public life.

In recent years, the French athletic brand Decathlon marketed a runner’s hijab only to be attacked by government ministers in French President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet. Before that, there was the controversy over the “burkini,” a swimsuit that allows observant Muslim women to go swimming in public while also respecting modesty. In the wake of devastating terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, the swimsuit was depicted at the time as being tantamount to a national security threat, even by left-wing politicians.

The irony is that each of these cases — wearing a hijab to run, putting on a burkini to swim or playing soccer while observing Ramadan — show Muslims participating in public life, not withdrawing from it. This is not “separatism.” This is citizenship in the truest sense of the word. If only the French elite could understand that.

As Paris is set to host the next Olympic Games in 2024, the stance of a prominent French sports federation does not exactly make the City of Light look the most enlightened — at least when it comes to welcoming athletes from a variety of diverse cultures.