Chirac Seeks Law Banning Headscarf in Schools

The headscarf is a highly controversial issue in France. In order not to burn their fingers on this matter, President Chirac and his government have based their decision to prohibit the Hijab on the countrys secular tradition. Bernhard Schmid reports

The headscarf is a highly controversial issue in France. In order not to burn their fingers on this matter, President Chirac and his government have based their decision to prohibit the Hijab on the country’s secular tradition. Bernhard Schmid regards this move as being only apparently neutral.

Photo: AP
French President Chirac delivers his speech at the Elysee Palace in Paris

​​The cat is finally out of the bag. France will soon introduce a law regulating the display of religious symbols in schools and other public institutions. The French head of state evidently sees the issue as being of the highest priority, as President Jacques Chirac held an official speech on December 17 to address the matter of the headscarf before an invited audience. Some 400 guests from government circles, the education system, members of anti-racist organizations, and trade union officials from the public service were invited to the event on Wednesday afternoon in the Elysée Palace.

The headscarf – the focus of media attention

It is now clear that students in public schools will be prohibited from wearing the "Islamic veil, under whatever name one chooses to use" (Chirac’s words) – until now, the differentiation between a voile (veil, Hijab) and foulard (headscarf) was a contentious matter – as well as the Jewish skullcap and Christian crosses that are excessively large. Lawmakers are expected to codify the ban.

This was the main story in French domestic politics on the following Thursday – it made the title page of almost all of the daily papers – even though the issue had been covered in the previous eight days. The government seemed to be in a rush, as only a few minutes after the President’s speech, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin announced that the center-right government will soon be passing a law expected take effect as of the start of the next school year. In order for the law to be applied by the beginning of next September, the third and final reading of the bill must be completed by the summer break at the latest.

Revival of secular traditions

Most observers of the controversy had already expected that such a law was being considered. On December 11, a twenty-member commission of inquiry under the chairmanship of Bernard Stasi, former Chirac advisor and current médiateur de la République (the national ombudsman), published its conclusions. The group had been working since the beginning of July on recommendations for "revising secularism in France".

What directly triggered President Chirac’s decision to set up the commission was a renewed flare up of the headscarf debate in April and May this year. At the time, complaints were raised by members of the political establishment and the media concerning the "growth of community insularity", or, in other words, an increasing self-obsession by various segments of the population, possibly resulting in a decline of a universal conception of rights and values. These views were particularly directed at developments within the country’s immigrant population.

A ban on the conspicuous display of religious symbols

The final report of the so-called "Stasi Commission" contained a number of recommendations, two of which stood out. The first recommended measure to be taken consisted of a double ban – not only religious symbols, whether worn in an "ostensible" manner or conspicuously displayed, but also blatant signs of political allegiance are to be prohibited in public schools. The first half of this double ban came as no surprise, seeing as how those wearing headscarves (as well as skullcap wearers, although most of these attend confessional schools and are therefore not affected by a possible ban) are at the center of the debate.

In contrast, the recommendation to ban "ostentatious" manifestations of political allegiance took observers off guard. Especially those engaged in left-wing or anti-fascist groups have already sounded an alarm against the authoritative spirit of the law, which could limit the battle of ideas among young people, as well as attempting to impose a prescribed calm. Yet, Chirac apparently ignored this second half of the recommendation. In any case, there was no mention of political symbols in his speech. Perhaps Chirac or his government feared that this would mobilize students against the measure, which would then certainly create unrest.

Equal rights through holidays?

photo: AP
Alma and Lila Levy were expelled from their high school in Aubervilliers, in Oct. 13, 2003

​​Likewise, little consideration was given to the second recommendation of the committee made up of lawyers, philosophers, sociologists, and politicians. Their plan favors the recognition of Jewish and Muslim holidays in the public school calendar in addition to the present legal holidays of Christian origin (and, as in the case of Christmas, pre-Christian Germanic or Gallic origin, which were only later masked with a Christian legitimacy).

Specifically, the Islamic Eid El Kebir (which has its origins in the sacrifice made by Abraham) and Yom Kippur, the Jewish "day of atonement", should be incorporated in the school holiday calendar. This doesn’t mean, however, that wage earners will be able to enjoy the pleasure of additional days off. In the future, they will be given the choice of taking their holiday on Eid El Kebir or Yom Kippur instead of on one of the usual days, which in any event has long been the practice.

Attack against holidays for religious minorities

This last undertaking of the commission, which seems to be regarded as a sort of "compensation" to religious minorities to make up for the headscarf and skullcap ban in public schools, was nevertheless met with a cry of indignation. The Christian Democratic political François Bayrou sees this idea as a "headlong rush towards communal insularity". The right-wing Catholic EU opponent Philippe de Villiers spoke of a "hidden promotion of Islamic insularity". As expected, Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the far right National Front, railed against an apparent preferential treatment for Islam at the expense of Christian traditions.

However, many members of the UMP, the conservative governing party, have also expressed suspicions concerning this reform. Some of them voiced similar positions to those stated above, whereas others are simply acting on the basis of political motives, afraid that if the measure is implemented, then the far right under Le Pen will gain seats in the regional parliamentary elections to be held in three months. A frequently labored argument claims that the elimination of the Whit Monday holiday by the Raffarin government in November of this year is somehow directly connected to the "future recognition of Muslim and Islamic holidays".

Envy as a political factor

This connection is rather difficult to maintain, as employees would not be (in contrast to students and teachers) directly affected by the new holidays. The main reason for the government eliminating the Whit Monday holiday had to do with increasing work time, which is apparently necessary in order to finance the care of elderly citizens. One can, in effect, speak here of the mobilization of a sheer envy effect, without it having any real basis in fact.

In his speech, Chirac addressed the issue with the words, "I do not believe that any new holidays should be added to the school calendar, as there are already too many." Instead, the individual absence of pupils on the days in question should be excused by teachers and no examinations should be planned for these days. This has already been put into practice by schools and universities for some time, at least in most cases. What remains is the symbol implied in the changed rhythm of holidays.

Equality at the expense of minorities

The prohibition of "ostentatious religious symbols" is hereby justified in the name of universalism, the basis of French secularism, which holds that the social life of an individual should not be predetermined by his or her origins. At the same time, pushed to one side is the argument that a type of cultural particularism tends to dominate in this majority-ruled society, in which only those holidays of a Christian origin are implicitly recognized, even though they may have lost their former significance for many citizens.

Some 200 years ago, the French revolutionaries had to grapple with this problem. On November 24, 1793, they even passed a law that changed the rhythm of the week. Instead of Sunday, which was the traditional Christian day of rest and religious service, another weekly day off was chosen – the décadi. Nothing remains of this ideologically extreme attempt at reform except a bad memory. Yet, this new division of the calendar into décades instead of weeks brought with it an unexpected advantage for the aspiring middle classes. They could now treat their workers to a day off only every ten days instead of every seven days.

Bernhard Schmid, © 2003

Translation from German: John Bergeron

Muslims say, outlawing headscarves at school is persecution - click here
French clerics oppose scarf ban - click here

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