(Editorial from current issue of Church & State Magazine, No. 76, Spring 2004)
The French Head Scarf Ban
David Alvey

France is the most avowedly secularist state in the world. It is also the European state most capable of resisting the militarist agenda of the US and Britain as was shown when Jacques Chirac and his Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, successfully spearheaded opposition to American and British efforts to win UN Security Council support for the Iraq war. It is only to be expected, therefore, that democrats, opponents of militarism and secularists around the world, including the contributors to this magazine, should be well disposed towards France. Yet our favourable disposition should not prevent us from carefully weighing up the pros and cons of internationally significant initiatives from the French Government. The recent ban against female Muslim students from wearing religious head scarves in public schools is both internationally significant and hugely controversial. That it has attracted a large measure of international media attention is not surprising.

Viewed from afar it is difficult to see any merit in the ban. Within France it will antagonise Muslims and may even encourage intolerance among the majority population; and internationally it will certainly increase the already intense alienation from the West felt by Muslims across the world.

However, the issues involved are complex and particular to France. Advocates of the ban, including Chirac himself, have argued that the refusal of Muslims to integrate into French society threatens the cohesion of the society as a whole. He is also determined that that those in the front line of encounters with Muslim disaffection, especially teachers, should not be left in the lurch. The following extracts from two internet sources summarise Chirac's case.

The Case for the Ban

[From a discussion group focussed on Cultural Diversity and Equity sponsored by TakinITGlobal (TIG) www.ycdo.takingitglobal.org]

"Text of Speech by Chirac February 2004

"Secularism is one of the Republic's great achievements. It's a crucial element in social peace and national cohesion. We must not allow it to be weakened. …

"More discreet symbols, such as small Islamic pendants, Christian crosses, or the Star of David, will be allowed under the new law. The protection of secularism, which is at the heart of French identity, must go beyond public schools.

"The law should also prevent patients in public hospitals from refusing medical care by doctors of the opposite sex. And it should allow employers to ban the wearing of religious symbols for reasons of health and safety, or 'contact with the clientele'.

"In the public service, employees should each be given a new 'secular code' describing the principles to be upheld. Finally, an 'independent authority' should be set up to fight against all forms of discrimination.

"Sandro Contenta. European Bureau."

[From an article, French Cabinet adopts head scarf ban by Elaine Ganley of the Associated Press, 28/1/04 www.muslimnews.co.uk/news]

"Chirac said France has a duty to protect French values, notably the constitutional principle of secularism that underpins French society.

"France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, estimated at some 5 million (8% of the population), and there is growing concern that Muslims are not integrating. The concern has been magnified by fears of a rise in Muslim fundamentalism.

"Not acting would mean 'leaving teachers and school principals alone in the face of growing difficulties'. Chirac evoked fears of what the French call 'communautarisme'—minorities and ethnic groups living apart from mainstream society."

The Opposition

The ban is broadly popular in France. According to an opinion survey 69 per cent of the adult population support it. There is opposition, however. Here are some typical sound bites from a range of opponents:

"A law on religious symbols in the schools environment could stigmatize a whole community" (The president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Dalil Boubakeur).

"Chirac's vision of a tolerant secularism would be undermined by the law. Chirac is explicitly rejecting the British and Canadian model of multi-culturalism which allows ethnic minorities keep their culture while adhering to the larger society" (Mouloud Aounit, head of a Paris-based anti-racist group).

"We are using a sledge hammer to break an egg. This matter of the head scarf has been blown out of proportion in an extraordinary way. The number of cases are quite small, and I'm in favour of keeping those young girls inside secular schools where they can be allowed to evolve" (A leading French sociologist, Edgar Morin).

"Still, some observers have seen the defence of secular principles in the head scarf debate as camouflage for an intolerant streak in France's Catholic-dominated society, which continues to marginalize its Muslim population. Suspicions are all the higher since some accounts indicate a decrease in the number of girls wearing head scarves to school in the past decade…

"With regional elections set for March, some detect a political calculation. Chirac may be hoping that his tough stand to maintain the division between church and state will help boost his sliding popularity and prevent the far-right National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, from cashing in with its anti-immigration theme" (Sandro Contenta of the European Bureau of TakingITGlobal)

International Criticism

The following snippet from the International Herald Tribune indicate how US pundits are responding to the issue:

"There is something extraordinarily reticent and short on confidence about the process the government has undertaken to pass a law to stop the wearing of ostensible Christian, Jewish or Muslim religious symbols in public schools. Unmistakably, the law's narrow intent is to keep the head scarves imposed on young Muslim women by Islamic fundamentalism out of classrooms below the university level. Just as clearly—but never stated with the convincing and easily available bona fides of details, names and specifics—the government wants to combat a kind of political/religious fanaticism that it thinks is trying to create a no-go enclave for itself within national life…

"Indeed, Dominique de Villepin, the sometimes theatrical-sounding French foreign minister, went so far as to suggest on Thursday that, however much on tiptoes it trod, the government and its proposed law were messing up his act in the Arab world. Villepin later denied saying this, but a number of French government members insisted (and re-asserted after Villepin's 'formal denial') that he had complained at a cabinet seminar about France's being left 'on the wrong foot in relation to the Arab countries' and 'in a very delicate situation on the international scene" (John Vinocur, International Herald Tribune 2.2.2004).

This article clearly reflects the prejudices of the Bush administration—contemptuous in almost equal measures of Chirac's Government and Islamic sensibilities.

The South Carolina Herald comments as follows—

"We too, salute the principle of secularism in the public school system. Students of one religion should not be subjected to the dogma of another religion during regular school activities. However, that should not extend to a ban on declaring one's religious identity. The wearing of Islamic head scarves—or yarmulkes or crosses—is not an expression of religious doctrine that might interfere with someone else but merely a symbol of one's faith. And in the case of Muslims, the wearing of the head scarf is encouraged by religious law" (Editorial from South Carolina Herald 27.1.2004).

This statement underlines the difference between US and French secularism.

The position of the British Government was stated by Foreign Office Minister, Mike O'Brien:

"In Britain, we are comfortable with the expression of religion, seen in the wearing of the hijab, crucifixes or the kippa. Integration does not require assimilation."


French secular Republicanism and Islamic fundamentalism are as incompatible as oil and water. One proudly and uncompromisingly demands the separation of Church and State, the other explicitly exhorts their essential unity. By enacting a law banning the wearing of head scarves, Jacques Chirac's Government is drawing attention to the incompatibility of the two ideologies. If the ban is a political stunt to win electoral advantage it is inexcusable. It is akin to playing a sectarian card and secularists should condemn Chirac's invocation of secularist principles as an exercise in cynicism.

However there are grounds for seeing the ban as a genuine response from a state that sees its essential interests under threat. If that is the case, then the ban exposes a weakness in French political culture—a tendency to set more store on abstract ideas than on political realities.

The chasm that divides French republicanism and its Muslim community is reminiscent, to an extent, of the division between English Puritanism and Irish ultramontanist Catholicism in the early nineteenth century. In the realm of pure English Protestant theory it was inconceivable that Irish Catholics should be permitted to participate in the political life of the state. How could a disaffected, justifiably aggrieved people whose basic loyalty was to Rome give allegiance to the English Crown? In practice, not without turmoil, a thirty-year delay and a fair measure of ignorance, the Westminster Parliament enacted Catholic Emancipation in 1829. The important point is that the skies did not fall. The more that constitutional rights were bestowed on Catholics, the more involved they became in the life of the state. The granting of Catholic Emancipation also helped to introduce a greater measure of toleration into the British body politic as a whole. Ultimately a separatist movement won out, but had the circumstances of the Great War turned out differently, the Catholic Irish could just as easily have aligned themselves with the cause of Empire. Apparently irreconcilable political forces can be made to reach accommodations, particularly where constitutional arrangements help to distract attention from the points of division.

The Chirac Government, in upholding the uniqueness of the French political tradition, has an important role to play in Europe and on the world stage. In doing so we can only hope that it allows for new thinking and flexibility rather than focussing too narrowly on first principles.


The French Head Scarf Ban.
David Alvey

Bibliolatry And Idolatry.
Brendan Clifford

Muriel MacSwiney.
Angela Clifford

Stephen Richards

Ivor Kenna (letter from Celtic League)

The Problem Of Protestant Population.
Dr. Pat Walsh

Irish Council For Civil Liberties.
David Lass reports

Answer To A French Secularist Questionaire.
Dave Alvey

A Search For Lucy Gault—William Trevor's Novel Reviewed.
Dave Alvey

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