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.
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? :^)