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.
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Diversity Within Unity

Following Scotts recent post in the mailbox we have Amitai Etzioni drawing our attention to a piece he wrote on the same topic in the International Herald Tribune. His key point seems to be that it is important to “utterly reject the multicultural notion that we should abolish societal identities to accommodate the sensibilities of the newcomers”.

I appreciate the thrust of what Amitai is saying here, but I still think he is mistaken. Identities are not static, but fluid: they are processes. Our identities as much as the cells which compose our bodies are changing everyday. We do not need to abolish anything, but we do need to accept both the fact of and the need for change. To do otherwise would seem not to be living in Europe, but rather to be living in Denial. So in this context I would prefer to go down another road, that opened up by the French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: one of the measures of our degree of civilisation as a community is our open-ness to the other. This would be my main point of departure from the US notion of diversity, which for all its sophistocation and its appeal, is still feel IMHO far too structured by a US, non-US dichotomy: one that we here in Europe are in danger of assimilating. The limitations of such a failure to grasp the radical difference presented by ‘otherness’ can be found, for example, in the attitude to Japan (why can’t these Japanese just set up a normal capitalist system like everyone else does), in China (why don’t the Chinese simply rebel against all this centralised communist dictatorship stuff), or – dare I say it – in Iraq (why the hell don’t these guys just accept democracy).

What Levinas suggests is that we are setting up the problem in the wrong way. The other is just ‘other’. Our challenge is to accept this. To take the marriage (or co-habitation) model: love is not consuming the partner and turning them into a figment of your own desire. Love is accepting your partner as they are, warts and all, and loving them for what they are.

Ok this is strange stuff for an economist I know, but there it is. I have pasted an extract from Amitai’s piece below. There are lots of other arguments worthy of consideration, about schools about common language, about you name it. This discussion is important, say what you feel like saying, maybe he will join in.
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The headscarf: Radical Islam’s greatest secret weapon

When I first came to Belgium, one of the things that genuinely surprised me is how people seem to think Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is a children’s programme. Admittedly, the title doesn’t exactly say “socially relevant drama”, but I doubt that the show’s success on American TV would have been possible without the age 24-55 market. Eventually, I started asking people what it was about the programme that made them come to that conclusion.

In most cases, people never really got past the name. Fantasy on the continent seems to be a very different animal than in the US. For example, when I suggested that Buffy is no more fantasy than Le Fabuleux destin d’Am?lie Poulain, I was greeted with shock. No, no – I was told – Am?lie is magical. The Paris it is set in – the clean one, without the graffitti and street crime – is fictional, of course, and the plot is certainly not realist, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the same category as vampires.

In a lot of cases, the real problem was linguistic. Buffy in French sounds very childish, spouting verlan and action movie clichés. The wit and prose skill of the original writers is completely lost, and even if you watch it in English on Flemish TV or the Beeb, I guess non-native speakers just don’t get it.

But I had one answer that surprised me. One person thought it belonged in the same category of American TV as Beverly Hills 90210. Why? Because of the clothes Buffy wears. No school would ever let a girl dress like that to class. I had to explain that in California, Buffy’s clothes aren’t even close to excessive.

The Belgian school system places some demands on students that American schools don’t. Personally, I don’t have a real problem with the imposition of a reasonable dress code in school. It is, if anything, one of life’s most minor injustices. Besides, I remember what it felt like to wear clothes from K-mart at a school where designer jeans were de rigueur.

However, I have some problems with this:

Deux s?nateurs veulent interdire le voile ? l’?cole

BRUXELLES Deux s?nateurs de la majorit?, Anne-Marie Lizin (PS) et Alain Destexhe (MR), ont d?pos? une proposition de r?solution qui invite les autorit?s f?d?rales et f?d?r?es du pays ? adopter des textes l?gislatifs portant sur l’interdiction ? l’?cole, et pour les agents de la fonction publique, de signes manifestant une appartenance religieuse.

Anne-Marie Lizin esp?re que le bureau du S?nat mettra sur pied une commission ad hoc qui pourra se pencher sur cette question d?licate, avec comme fil rouge le texte de la proposition de r?solution.

Pour Alain Destexhe, qui s’appuie sur la position de la Communaut? fran?aise, sur l’avis du Centre pour l’?galit? des chances, sur les diff?rentes d?clarations politiques et sur divers arr?ts, rapports ou recommandations tant belges qu’?trangers, le d?bat est clos, il est temps d’agir. Pour le s?nateur MR, il faut se demander ce qu’implique de vivre ensemble en Belgique au 21?me si?cle.

Il s’agit de d?fendre la libert? de conscience et la compatibilit? des libert?s dans l’espace public, ce qui implique un certain nombre de r?serves au sein de l’administration et ? l’?cole. L’?cole doit ?tre le lieu de l’apprentissage d’une conscience critique et de la promotion de valeurs universelles, ajoute-t-il.

Pour Anne-Marie Lizin, ?le voile, c’est la pression sur l’individu au nom d’une religion ?. La s?natrice de Huy estime qu’il est urgent de l?gif?rer au nom de l’?galit? homme-femme et pour soutenir le combat des femmes musulmanes dans chaque pays o? elles disent ?non? ? l’inf?riorit?.

L’initiative des deux parlementaires se fait en toute autonomie. Tant au PS qu’au MR, on ne se prononce pas pour l’interdiction du port du voile ? l’?cole. Le pr?sident du PS Elio Di Rupo a m?me estim? qu’il n’?tait pas opportun de d?battre de cette question en p?riode pr??lectorale. Mais pour Alain Destexhe, ?ne pas en discuter en p?riode ?lectorale revient justement ? alimenter le poujadisme et le vote d’extr?me droite?.

(Read on for the English translation)
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