Abstract In this article we examine recent heated debates about the acceptability of the veil in public institutions in Turkey and France. France's adoption of a law that banned all conspicuous religious and political symbols from public schools was a focal point in these debates. A restraining attitude towards veiling is even more extensive in Turkey. In this article we focus on the historical and contemporary connections between these two secular republics, as well as the ideological context of global neoliberalism and the policies of suprastate and transnational organizations to analyse how the discourses and practices of secularism have been employed with respect to the question of wearing veils in public institutions. We argue that the concept of secularism, of which the veil debate is one component, has been important for state formation and economic development in both Turkey and France, and that in the contemporary period it is also employed with respect to the image of a particular kind of unattached and unbiased neoliberal subject. France and Turkey provide revealing cases of the ways in which contemporary secularism as a technology of governance reflects both historical patterns and new trends in the neoliberal era.