European Affairs

The Levy girls were sent home by the head of their school, but the incident sparkeda national controversy amid mounting national concern about France’s Muslim minority in the aftermath of the U.S.-led overthrow of the regime in Iraq. The girls’ school was located in Aubervilliers, one of the suburbs of Paris that are home to many of the country’s Muslims and have become thescene of rioting and violent protests by young French Muslims complaining that they are discriminated against. The headscarf incident, a symptomatic forerunner of this eruption of social tension, led to a government decision in 2004 for state-run schools to ban headscarves (along with any other “conspicuous” religious symbols such as large neck crosses or yarmulkes).

This measure received overwhelming political and public support in a country where the separation of church and state has been enshrined in public consciousness not just as a law but as part of a secular political system of “republicanism” installed by the French Revolution. Modern France has consistently prided itself on its “republican” model of democracy that postulates a system of citizens living together in a single society with a strong sense of national identity in which all people are treated equally without regard to race, color or creed. French leaders reject the “multi-cultural” models they see in the United States and Britain, which recognize the separate identities of minorities and sometimes takes special steps (such as affirmative action) to foster integration. Interestingly, the issue of Islamic sartorial restrictions on women has recently arisen even in Britain, where the Blair government has publicly suggested that British Muslim women should not wear veils, arguing that it is socially divisive for women to hide their faces when dealing with government officials, teachers or other citizens.

John Bowen’s book, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space, focuses on the intellectual foundations for France’s “republican” philosophy of the state. This civic model stems from France’s rules of separation of church and state adopted in the 19th century in the wake of the French Revolution. Blandine Kriegel, advisor to President Jacques Chirac and chairperson of the high council on integration, argues that, “In Anglo-Saxon thinking, it is the concrete individual who has rights; freedom of conscience is the foundation. In our tradition these liberties are guaranteed through political power, which guarantees a public space that is neutral with respect to religion.”

The outright ban in France reflects the intensity of emotion aroused by the issue. Many members of the Muslim community in France seem to pride themselves on being “different’’ – a sort of rebellion. The government (and most French people) sees this, as it is often intended, as a challenge to a French social model. But some people in France – mainstream or Muslim – criticize the French approach as too rigid to deal with contemporary issues.1 This critical judgment is shared by this book’s author, John Bowen, an American anthropologist who specializes in the assimilation of minorities and questions of diversity in the contemporary world.

The scarf issue is intertwined with a range of French political debates relating to Muslim extremists and colored by the global threat of Islamic terrorism. France, like Britain, has seen a surge of violence in urban suburbs, much of it against Muslim women who are persecuted by their families, often over sexual freedom. “Islamists,” often operating in conjunction with foreign-educated imams who are hostile to European culture, are viewed by French leaders as rigid and radical in pursuing political programs deemed incompatible with those of French democracy.

Islam – or at least fear about angry young Muslims’ potential extremism – is a domestic problem for France, where Muslims, most from former French colonies in North Africa, constitute a growing minority of about 15 percent of the population. No one knows the exact number because France’s nominally color-blind “republicanism” dictates that no census can collect statistics about ethnic origin or religion. As a result, many French people perceive headscarves as a threat to their own sense of French national values.

Why do some school-age French Muslim women want to wear headscarves? These young women cite diverse motives: religious obligations, the desire to maintain a special identity, parental satisfaction. Muslim women also say they wear headscarves to show men that they should be respected because they are “respectable and respected” women. Critics contend that these young women are often being coerced by their male relatives, who want to keep their daughters and sisters under their authority and away from Western ideals of personal independence.

Of course, there are Muslims, too, who dislike the scarves but defend the right of their co-religionists to wear them. This more liberal approach is practiced in Britain. There are no legal bans on apparel in Britain, and schools are allowed to create their own dress code, sometimes integrating headscarves. Recently, there was a problem with Sikh men who wanted to hold government jobs in the police or public transport and yet continue to wear their turbans to hide their hair, which they wear long as an article of religious faith. British officials came up with a solution that involved designing turbans that \t with various official uniforms. This approach, officials said, is intended to avoid making minorities feel that they are being intimidated or discriminated against on religious grounds. This attitude is contrary to the French view that immigrants must assimilate by subscribing to the language and laws – and in practice, the cultural norms – that prevail in France’s civilization.

Bowen concludes that too often French leaders see integration solely in terms of a mono-cultural model, meaning a stress on the need for immigrants to assimilate and shed or hide any separateness that they might feel because of their roots in another culture. Many Muslims argue that this French ideal is really an excuse to practice exclusion against large parts of the nation’s Muslim community.

In practice, it is hard not to see a pattern of discrimination. As many observers have noted, conditions in many Muslim-populated poor suburbs are too poor, in terms of housing and schools, to give young people there a real opportunity to master French culture.

On a positive note, Bowen reports that France has many immigrants and their children, notably Muslims, who see the strength of “the republic’’ residing in its promise to accept all those who wish to become part of France, despite their differences.

But Bowen – admittedly, approaching the question from his American perspective – concluded that the basic social contract of “republican France” is too narrowly defined by French leaders. Instead, he writes, the basic approach should be broadened to focus on making people feel the possibilities of sharing a national destiny despite differences in appearance, history or religion. In his view, this secular and republican faith, when properly understood, allows the nation’s citizens to explore their differences, rather than hiding them.

For the moment, the evidence shows many European countries swinging toward the French model, particularly after episodes of deadly violence on their soil. The once ultra-liberal Netherlands is an example: it has now adopted proactive measures to make Muslim immigrants conform to Dutch cultural norms. The Blair government, too, is being affected. It was perhaps ironic that Britain, with its high tolerance, suffered terrorist attacks at the hands of home-grown Muslims while France, with its less welcoming attitude, has recently been immune from such attacks. Now Britain shows signs of turning away from its “multiculturalism” as a model for British society. Is this a temporary swing? Or is it a turning point in Europe?

Lauren Zoebelein is a recent intern at We European Institute.

1 For a scholarly, extensively documented study of all these issues, see another recent publication: Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France by Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse (Brookings Institution Press, 2006). Its thoughtful foreword is by Olivier Roy, a pre-eminent French specialist.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.