France and the Headscarf: Now the real fighting starts

Yesterday, the French National Assembly voted for a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools by a majority of 494 in favour to 36 against. With the bill polling at 70% favourable among the French public, neither major political formation saw any gain in opposition.

Votes against came from several quarters. Alain Madelin – the sole serious Thatcherite in the French government – voted against, as did Christiane Taubira – the first black woman candidate for the French presidency and the first candidate from an overseas department. The biggest block to vote against came from the French Communist Party where 14 members voted against, 7 for, and 3 abstained. The Communists are the only party whose leadership has consistently opposed this law. Back in November the PCF leadership concluded that: “Nous sommes contre une loi qui, sous couvert de la?cit?, aurait comme cons?quence de stigmatiser une population.” We are against a law that, under the cover of secularism, would have as its consequence the stigmatisation of a population.

Normally, I would say that any bill that is opposed by both Alain Madelin and the PCF has to be a good idea. But this time, the fringe politicians are right, and the mainstream is wrong.

The UDF was also divided. Although 12 of its members voted for the bill, 4 voted against and 13 abstained. Its leader made this a free vote for the party, and abstained himself. One of the mebers voting against said that it is “dangereux de fonder une politique d’int?gration sur un interdit” – dangerous to build an integrationist policy on an interdiction.

Although the vast majority of socialist members voted for the bill, it was not without some hesitations. Jean-Marc Ayrault, president of the Socialist Party, claimed some small pride in getting an annual review added to the bill. The intent, I expect, is to force the government to report on the effect the bill is having, giving the socialists a fig leaf to escape if it all goes bad. He also announced a new initiative within the party to enable Muslims to practice their faith “dans la dignit?.”

It remains to be seen whether this law passes muster before the courts.

The leftist press in France is, at least, showing some mettle on this issue. Le Monde has an article today on girls who are forced to end their studies because of the existing anti-headscarf policies of schools and the Catch-22 French law puts them into.

Pour nombre d’?l?ves voil?es et exclues, l’?cole s’arr?te d?finitivement

For many veiled and excluded students, school is definitively over

Ch?rif? has not been to school in 5 months. This 13 year old girl, of Turkish origin, showed up with her head covered at her high school in Bron (Rh?ne). She should have been starting her freshman year. She was not allowed in.

“They didn’t want to enter the school with my headscarf”, she says. “I tried several times. Finally, I said to myself that it would be better to just stop going.”

This young woman then asked for assistance from the National Centre for Distance Learning (CNED). But she was refused on the grounds that registration is reserved for sick and handicapped students, and students living abroad. […]

The principal of her high school does not consider her to have been “excluded.” “In order for there to be an exclusion, there has to have been disciplinary advice”, she says. “She left of her own accord. The school rules forbid all head coverings. She made a lifestyle choice. Now, if she isn’t registered with CNED, it’s not my problem…” […]

For its part, academic authorities refuse to say that the student was “not admitted.” Or more specifically, “She was admitted, but she rejected the school rules.” So, the young woman is at home. She loafs around. Her mother has difficulty speaking French. A few volunteer teachers, militants with an Islamic association, have come to help her. “They shut the dorr to my future”, Ch?rif? complains. This year, six other students wearing headscarves have not been admitted to high school in Bron.

Sa?da Kada, […] head of the “Association of French Islamic Women who Vote”, […] denounced the “omerta” surrounding this subject. “The new law forsees an evaluation after a year. But how exactly is the Education Ministry going to do that? There are no statistics, because young women are usually kept out for some reason other than the headscarf. They push them out.”

Officially, records show only five students expelled because of their headscarves in this school year […] Monique Crinon of the group “One School for Everyone”, which is fighting the law on headscarves, admits that it is very hard to get reliable information: “It’s a black hole. After they turn 16, it’s even harder because children are no longer legally required to attend school.”

The picture this paints is not a pretty one.

When I was a university student in France, I was told repeatedly how the school system had changed from the pre-1968 dark ages. Schools were responsive and students had a variety of choices available. Helping everyone get a bac had become the priority of the school system. French school teachers were sometimes even pleasant people.

I can think of few more callous things for a principal to say than that some of the children in her school district are “not her problem.” Principals are people too. They have frustrations and only so much time and patience. Not being able to do anything about a student’s exclusion I can accept. But to simply not care should disqualify someone from holding a job as a principal.

I can imagine children falling through the cracks in the system, finding themselves unable to go to school and ineligible for correspondance courses. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. But, I don’t think it is unreasonable for the school system, upon finding out that a child under 16 is not in school, to at least want to find out why.

I still have hopes that the courts – either the Conseil d’?tat in Paris or the court in Strasbourg – will strike this down. But in the mean time, the French state has turned a group of girls who are already among the least integrated and least empowered in the country into martyrs for their faith. Whatever value as a symbol of dissidence the more anti-social tendencies in French Islam may have had before, they have now doubled.

Update: Changed “ostentatious” to “conspicuous” because it is the right translation. This is one of those infamous faux amis in French. Geez, Des, which one of us has a blog named Pedantry? :^)

26 thoughts on “France and the Headscarf: Now the real fighting starts

  1. The French Communist Party was in fact split. It voted that there was no official position of the Party. The leader, Marie-George Buffet, voted against the Law but some PCF MPs voted in favor of the Law. The Trotskyst Lutte Ouvriere supports the Law but the Troskysts from LCR are split too.
    You forgot other opponents to the law like the ultra-catholic Christine Boutin.

    The Monde article pretends to forget that schoolgirls can wear the scarf in private schools and that many girls do so. I think the Law will actually help Muslim girls and protect their Liberty of conscience, which is the role of the secular public system.

  2. There is only one Muslim private secondary school in France (info from the newswires, let me know if you know of more).

    The community is impoverished, and does not have the funds to set up a nationwide network of private Islamic schools, along the lines of the private Jewish schools.

    It was quite predictable that this law would force Muslim girls out of school. We were all quite rightly outraged when the Taliban did this. I hope that Frenchmen will be equally horrified by the actions of their own government.

  3. No, as far as I know, there is only one Muslim private secondary school (Lyc?e Averro?s) for now and it is not yet officially sanctioned since it takes five years of existence to get official recognition (and public subsidies). But they will exist.

    Muslims and Muslim veiled girls can also go to Catholic schools and they already do. The scarf is authorized there and private schools can be relatively cheap since they have (in my view too much) public support.

    This law will not force Muslims out of school. It will force a tiny minority of students who refuse a secular school to go to a private religious school.

    Polls show that many French Muslims already support the law and I am sure there will more and more of them.

  4. Scott: Are you sure about “ostentatious”? Last I heard Chirac was publically dressing down Ferry for using that word instead of “ostensible”.

    Le Monde quotes only “encadrant, en application du principe de la?cit?, le port de signes ou de tenues manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les ?coles, coll?ges et lyc?es publics””.

  5. Sorry, but putting this law as reason to force muslim girls out of school sounds to me like they had no choice.
    But they have.
    It’s not school, forcing them out, it’s their parents or themselves who force them out, because they still could just remove the scarf.
    Blaming the law for missing integration is IMO the wrong point; the comparison with the Taliban is IMO pretty tasteless.

  6. The law requires them to choose between their faith (not a symbol of their faith) and education. It effectively says that members of a certain religion, as they practice their faith, may not attend public schools.

    The Taliban effectively forbade Muslim women going to school. The French law accomplishes the same thing. If you care about equal rights and womens’ education, this is an applalling law.

    (If this law were accompanied by public efforts to establish Muslim schools, or offer correspondence courses for women, it would mitigate the evil outcome. But I have not heard that the French government is attempting any of that).

  7. I don’t want to be annoying and repeat once again the same arguments over and over since I know I cannot even hope to convince you.

    Many Muslims do not wear the hidjeb (like most Christians do not wear that veil which was in St Paul). Do you imply they are bad or false Muslims?

    Muslims are not targeted. Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Raelians or whatever have to go to religious schools if they think they can not take off religious signs while they are minor. That is all.

    The government does not build religious schools because we have this principle we call Separation of Church and State and neutrality of education since 1905. But there are correspondence courses for everybody, not just for women. The article quoted by Scott Martens mentions it. It is called the CNED. It is not an ideal solution but there are also private schools for the minority of people who want that degree of commitment.

  8. Here in Canada there was a kerfuffle some ten years ago or so over the right of Sikh members of the RCMP (national police, colloquially known as the Mounties) to wear their turbans rather than the traditional Mountie hat while in uniform. Part of the Sikh faith is for men to wear turbans. Not every Canadian man who considers himself a Sikh considers the turban to be a requirement of his faith, just as not every French woman who considers herself a Muslim chooses to wear the headscarf. However, many do. It’s not a lifestyle choice, or merely a symbol, it’s part of their faith as they observe it. In Canada it was decided that the rules against wearing any headgear other than the regulation hat while in uniform were discriminatory, because they effectively excluded observant Sikh men from pursuing careers within the RCMP. In the same way, penalizing French Muslim girls for observing their faith effectively excludes them from the public education system. A system for which, incidentally, their parents pay taxes.

    Look, I’m a white Protestant. The idea of wearing a headscarf to observe my faith is as meaningless to me as the idea of wearing a turban. But respecting religious plurality means understanding that something which seems meaningless to us is nevertheless important. The fact that these young women are giving up their public education rather than cast aside the headscarf does rather suggest that it’s not just a meaningless symbol.

  9. I respect the Anglo-Saxon concept of multiculturalism and their lack of Secularization but it is not the French Republican principle of la?cit?.

    I had this debate many times with Charles Taylor and other Communitarians who think our conception of modernity is obsolete because of globalization and I know I will not convince you.

    In the UK, there is still a State Religion (even if Charles wants to change that). In the US, every child has to swear allegiance to a Nation “Under God”. There is no “la?cit?”, only Toleration of many Churches.

    In France, religion is supposed to be purely in the private sphere and the State protects the freedom of conscience against all religions. That is why no civil servant or minor students can show religious signs.
    If you have a deep religious commitment and believe you have to show those signs, then you have the right to go to a private institution (or take correspondence courses).

  10. ” It’s not school, forcing them out, it’s their parents or themselves who force them out, because they still could just remove the scarf.”

    That sounds unfair, if you accept that it is a religious symbol, which is what the law says. If America tried to pass a law that said students wearing crosses would not be allowed into the school, the government would be overthrown.

    This seems like a fairly clear case of a majority taking action against a minority that it doesn’t like.

  11. “Muslims and Muslim veiled girls can also go to Catholic schools and they already do.”

    I’m sure they are deeply comforted by the ability to go to the school of a rival faith. This must be an example of European subtlety of thinking that I just can’t understand.

    “Many Muslims do not wear the hidjeb (like most Christians do not wear that veil which was in St Paul). Do you imply they are bad or false Muslims?”

    This is a classic statist misunderstanding of the issue. I imply nothing about who is or is not a false Muslim based on their wearing or not wearing of the veil. I am not Muslim. But they are Muslim and the believe it to be necessary.

    The fact that the French government believes that this will increase the speed of integration suggests that many in France have a very simplistic view of how religion actually operates. But I guess no one has ever really accused the French of being tolerant.

  12. Can a seven years old girl judge what her religious belief is?
    Remember, we’re talking about little girls, schoolgirls. Do they express their belief with that scarf? Sure not!
    They express the belief and the political statement their parents, uncles, brothers… want to make.
    We’re not talking about banning girls in headscarfs from the streets, just from schools, don’t confuse this, please.
    I see it that schools help them for not getting abused by adults.

  13. Jonathan: If similar provisions were used against similarly restrictive and bigoted behaviours used by, say, Orthodox Jews, I’d support it.

    More generally.

    I don’t believe that the state should tolerate a belief, on the part of French Muslim men, that women who don’t cover themselves are whores. Certainly French Muslim women seem generally to welcome this ban, given their majority support for the provision. Ni Putes, Ni Soumises was founded by French Muslim banlieusards, after all, and Rana’s points over at the Crooked Timber seem confirming.

  14. “Muslims and Muslim veiled girls can also go to Catholic schools and they already do.”

    I’m sure they are deeply comforted by the ability to go to the school of a rival faith. This must be an example of European subtlety of thinking that I just can’t understand.

    Evidently so, Seb. I think Phersu has a valid point here. I presume (correct me if I’m wrong Phersu) that Muslim girls will still be able to wear hijab in Catholic schools, and many already do so. In some parts of England, (state-funded) Catholic and Anglican schools are preferred to secular state schools by many Muslim parents because they at least have some sort of religious foundations. In the Central London area I live in, which has a sizeable Muslim population, we have a secular state Primary and an Anglican Primary (covering 5-11 year old children). About 25% of children in the state school are Muslim, while about 50% of those in the Anglican school are. The Muslim children attend Anglican worship. Some of the girls wear hijab while doing so. Nobody minds.

    Sadly this is not the case everywhere. In Oldham, scene of race riots in 2000, the Church schools are 90%+ white, the state schools about 80% South Asian Muslim. On the other hand, a friend of mine is the head of a Catholic school in Bradford (also the scence of race riots in 2000) where 95% of his pupils are Muslim. Cause and effect can be a little more complicated than we political thinkers imagine.

    None of this changes the fact that this law is a disgrace.

  15. Sebastian writes

    “But they are Muslims and they believe it is necessary”

    What sort of standard is that? And if the French Muslims decide that other customs such as stoning an adulterous woman are “necessary”, will your commitment to multiculturalism have you casting stones as well? Or merely refusing to judge such actions from a eurocentric bias.

    Okay I’m being unfair, but I truly believe that secularism not only needs to be guarded, but also promoted.

  16. Exactly. Islamic law; Catholic canon law; religious law generally. Voltaire was right–the infamy has to be crushed, in whatever form it might find itself.

  17. Artful Dodger, the problem of the hijab is that Muslim thugs beat up and rape those who don’t wear it. Banning it doesn’t address the issue. Dealing with the thugs is what deals with the issue. Banning the hijab just means that the thugs will exercise their control in another way. But expecting the French to even attempt to deal with the actual problem is apparently unrealistic.

  18. I’m with Phersu and Randy here. You cannot judge this law by the standards of US multiculturalism. France has a different principle and it is related to its history. What works in one place doesn’t work in another, so you have to understand the context before you judge.

    That means understanding also the context of the (forced) use of Islamic headscarf. Those who criticise this law as Taleban-like have completely forgotten it is an imposition by Islamic religious and political authorities, and that young girls (not yet women) have no choice, or are brainwashed into wearing it – and most importantly, behaving according to everything the headscarf means, ie. that a woman is a whore unless she covers herself.

    You cannot blame the counter-effect of the ban on the principles that inspired it, either. If this law results in further intransigence of Islamic religious authorities and reinforce and an even bigger political meaning given to the headscarf, then this is only proof of how rigid and mysoginist the Islamic faith is.

    Integration starts from the willingness to be integrated. For those who’d rather pay for private schooling and keep forcing their children to submit to an absurd dictate that demeans them as a person, it’s clear there is no willingness at all there. You can’t blame this on others.

    I participated in a student exchange with a school in Paris ten years ago. Mostly girls, mostly Islamic, and mostly wearing the veil. I became best friend with the only Muslim girl that didn’t give a damn about the scarf or religion and was constantly trying to escape the control of her rather authoritarian father. The difference was not only in what they wore. It’s the behaviour. The girls who obeyed their parents and dutifully wore the hijab and covered up and acted shily like a “good Muslim girl” should do, were silent, absent, you couldn’t talk to them about the normal things teenagers talk about. They just weren’t there. I felt sorry for them, but couldn’t understand how they could accept their parents dictating everything they did. You could make any possible effort to befriend them, they were nice, really, but they just were on another planet. They separated themselves from the rest of us. They did not object to that whole set of rules (of which the headscarf is only an outer symbol, it’s what goes with it that really counts!) that dictated they should behave in such a way as to remain separated. It’s very disruptive in a class, when you cannot do so many things together, and more than half won’t participate in normal recreational behaviour of their age.

    It is complicated, and I agree ideally the state should not ban anything when it is a personal choice. But here, that aspect of personal choice is extremely blurry.

    The Islamic veil is a tool used by religious and political authorities precisely to enhance their social control and to declare the special status of Muslims as a state within a state.

    It’d be wonderful if this was only about a garment, it’d be wonderful if we could say, so what if a girl is wearing a scarf, it’s not important. But it is, for everything it carries with it, and even if this law might have a worse effect than intended, its principle is right in the context in which it is applied.

    Religious symbols today are not just symbols. In France especially. You have to understand that. Even if you don’t agree, at least avoid comparisons with other countries and situations because they’re not correct.

  19. One thing I concede to the critics is, yes, the ban might be a bad solution even if inspired by a real problem and by a right principle. In other words, I do think the principle of French laicit? is right; but this may be a case where no law can affect change, because it is more of a political and cultural issue within Islam, so any external attempt to force integration (because that’s clearly the inspiring principles of this law – not the contrary, as its critics say) might be doomed to failure in any case.

    But it has to start from somehwere, and the state has a right to try and solve a problem of integration in a *public* environment like state-owned and state-managed schools.

  20. One thing that might be considered is that a subtext of this is that the French would like to have the less-secularized Muslims leave France. France, like the Netherlands, has a relatively large very conservative Muslim population, mostly from their former colonies (Algeria for France, Indonesia for the Netherlands) that apparently wish to alter the culture in their new country. Pim Fortuyn made that clear before he was assassinated.

  21. Nice web site, by the way. I’ll have to add it to my “Favorites” list.

    Based on an entry in your sidebar, it looks as though I will be renewing my subscription to Der Spiegel. It really is an interesting publication. I have found that one can get more international (relative to Germany) news from Der Spiegel, including news from the US, than from any of the so-called “news magazines” published in the US.

  22. Just to clear some things up about the Netherlands,

    The muslim population consists mostly of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants.

    There is no large group of immigrants from Indonesia. There were the Dutch and those related to them, and there were the Molukkers, mostly christian, that came from Indonesia to the Netherlands after WW2 and Indonesia’s independence.

    The charge that they want to change Dutch culture is strange. But it may have been one of the more foolish ideas of Mr. Fortuyn.

  23. The charge that they want to change Dutch culture is strange. But it may have been one of the more foolish ideas of Mr. Fortuyn.

    Exactly. Catholic positions on gays are hardly more progressive than Muslim positions, after all.

    More to the point, the Catholics have tried. They formed political parties with the goal of trying to “change” Dutch culture. As of now the Dutch Muslim community has mostly operated within the current Dutch (political) culture. When people from the Muslim communities in the Netherlands reach positions of any importance they generally oppose the oppression of homosexuals and women in their communities.

    And as for the hijab ban – the school system here is not as secular as in France, therefore it won’t be an issue. There is an almost general “ban” on clothing that covers the face.
    After some initial discussions I haven’t seen any opposition to this.

  24. More to the point, the Catholics have tried. They formed political parties with the goal of trying to “change” Dutch culture. As of now the Dutch Muslim community has mostly operated within the current Dutch (political) culture. When people from the Muslim communities in the Netherlands reach positions of any importance they generally oppose the oppression of homosexuals and women in their communities.

    Exactly. Dutch society, then, would still seem to be porous enough that voluntary assimilation into general Dutch culture on the part of minorities is still possible. Or is it? It’s a two-way process, at any rate, on the part of the wider society and the smaller minority both permitting mobility by individual minority members.

    Even if they did want to change Dutch culture, so long as assimilation is possible the threat will end up being defused. New England isn’t a French-Canadian ultra-Catholic enclave, after all.

    (Come to think of it, there may be a few parallels between Catholic assimilation mid-century and Muslim assimilation now.)

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