France is in the process of passing a law that would ban “signs and dress that ostensibly denote the religious belonging of students” in public elementary and high schools beginning in the 2004-2005 school year. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the bill on February 3. According to the Ministry of Education, the law would cover all “signs and dress whose wearing leads to the immediate recognition of the [wearer’s] religious belonging, which is to say the Islamic veil, whatever name one calls it, the [Jewish] kippa, or a cross of massively excessive dimensions.” Despite such rhetoric of universality, the target of the interdiction clearly seems to be the hijab—the head covering worn by Muslim women and girls—whose place in French public schools has been a source of controversy since 1989. The law appears to call into question the legitimacy of Islam in the French public sphere and has been interpreted by many in the Islamic world as a direct attack on Islam. Not surprisingly, the law has elicited huge debate and contention in the halls of government, the pages of newspapers and in city streets from Paris and Washington to Gaza, Baghdad and Jakarta.

Law and Laïcité

The law was officially proposed by President Jacques Chirac in a December 17, 2003 speech and submitted for constitutional review by the Ministry of Education on January 5, 2004. It follows in part the recommendations of two commissions, one headed by president of the National Assembly Jean-Louis Debré, the other by immigration expert and former minister Bernard Stasi, each charged with evaluating the state of laïcité (state secularism) in France. The latter committee was an erudite group of 23 scholars, government officials and professionals working in the milieus of religion and migration, including ex-revolutionary philosopher Régis Debray, sociologist Alain Touraine, Islamologists Mohamed Arkoun and Gilles Kepel, and experts on immigration Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux and Patrick Weil. Over the course of four months, it held nearly 100 public and 40 private hearings with representatives from various religious communities, state agencies, NGOs, schools and universities, as well as a public discussion with over 200 students from schools in metropolitan France and French territories abroad.

The Stasi committee’s 77-page published report subtly traced the history of and present challenges to laïcité, and recommended a series of 26 measures to better enhance its mission of providing freedom of belief, the legal equality of religious groups and the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis religion. These measures included not only proposed legislation to clarify the state’s position on religious garb in schools, but also the incorporation of Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha as public holidays, expanded classroom instruction on “religious facts” in addition to the history of slavery, colonization, decolonization and immigration, the teaching of non-state languages such as Berber and Kurdish as opposed to simply state languages like Arabic and Turkish, the rehabilitation of “urban ghettos” seen as the breeding grounds for anti-secularist fundamentalisms, and the adoption of a Charter of laïcité to be invoked during various public rites including the naturalization of immigrants. Although several of these suggestions (including the teaching of Berber in schools) are being considered, only the proposal for legislation against “ostensible” religious signs and dress in public schools made its way into Chirac’s pronouncement and the National Assembly’s deliberations.

The Stasi report and the current debates revolve around the future of laïcité in a context marked by the rise of Islam as the second religion of France and fears over the growth of “communitarianism,” particularly in the “urban ghettos” where many immigrants and their children reside. Laïcité is considered by supporters of the law proposal to be a fundamental, immutable pillar of the French republic. Enthroned in the present constitution, it is variously cited in the Stasi report as the “cornerstone (pierre angulaire) of national unity,” the “guarantee of individual freedom,” the “founding value of the republican pact,” and, most colorfully, the “leavening (levain) of integration.” For the authors of the report, hijabs worn in school—as clear markers of “communitarianism”—threaten laïcité, and hence the “social pact” of “living together” (vivre-ensemble) that maintains the republic as an integral unit.

Interdiction of “Ostentation”

Laïcité, as inscribed in the 1905 law separating church and state in education, served to protect individual students from the proselytizing of presumably Catholic public school teachers and administrators. Gradually, however, the burden of responsibility for maintaining religious neutrality shifted from the schools to the students themselves. A May 15, 1937 circular from Popular Front Education Minister Jean Zay, fearing the utilization of schools for recruitment by fascist groups, underlined “the necessity of maintaining public education…free from political and religious propaganda…. No form of proselytism will be tolerated.” After 1989, when three schoolgirls were expelled from a grammar school outside of Paris for refusing to remove their headscarves in class, public anxiety newly coalesced around the possibility of Islamic fundamentalist groups deploying the dress and comportment of schoolchildren to spread their sectarian doctrines.

Such anxiety, however, did not translate immediately into legal interdiction. Lionel Jospin, then minister of education, asked that children “do not come to school with any sign affirming a religious distinction or difference,” but stated that this in itself could not be grounds for expulsion. Indeed, when asked to examine the headscarf question constitutionally in 1989, the French high court concluded that wearing a Muslim headscarf was not in principle incompatible with laïcité, and that the exclusion of such a student would only be justified by “the risk of a threat to the establishment’s order or to the normal functioning of teaching”—a threat posed because the headscarf was “ostentatious” or “political” in intent.

The court decision effectively left it to individual schoolteachers and administrators to determine the “ostentatious” or “political” nature of any hijab encountered. Each subsequent school year witnessed a handful of cases of young girls arriving at school wearing headscarves and consequently being disciplined or dismissed. The most recent affair, in September 2003, ironically involved the dismissal of the Lévy sisters, whose father was later reported to be an atheist Jew. (The girls’ mother is Muslim, though the daughters were apparently introduced to more rigorous Islam by more distant relatives.) The high court has generally upheld such expulsions when the wearing of the headscarf disrupted the school curriculum, when it interfered with participation in physical education or biology classes, or when the students simply refused to attend these classes. However, in the absence of such disruptions, the high court has consistently reinstated the students. Moreover, it has insisted that the cases be resolved through negotiated compromise with state-appointed mediators like Stasi commission member Hanifa Cherifi, a self-defined “secular Muslim” who, while not inherently hostile to the hijab, generally sought to convince the girls in question to abandon it for practical reasons.

Though generally resolved out of court, cases of headscarved young women have tended to receive disproportionate media attention. On the one hand, the media has often presented the schoolgirls as the avant-garde of an Islamist insurgency that threatens to undermine the French Republic. On the other hand, the schoolgirls are portrayed as victims of violence and subjugation, their headscarves imposed upon them by their fathers and “big brothers.” In either case, the notion is that behind the headscarved girls lurks the Islamist “bearded man,” an image pervading a series of political cartoons under the rubric “Histories of the Veil” that ran in Le Monde during the first week of 2004.

Paralleling these media portrayals, scores of academic studies and memoirs by French Muslim women published since 1989 have sought to unravel the extent and ramifications of “veiling” in France. While they attest to the diversity of the phenomenon, these works generally conclude that Islamic “integralism” (intégrisme) is on the rise in urban France, and explain Islamism as the direct result of worsening “social exclusion”—in the form of unemployment, racism and failing schools—faced by Muslim immigrant groups. Depictions of “ghetto” Islamism were bolstered by the linking of French-born Muslims to the 1995 bombings in Paris and Lyon attributed to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, the arrest of French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui as the “twentieth hijacker” in the September 11, 2001 plot, and the detention of several French citizens of North African descent in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Many journalists and politicians began to worry that the French housing projects (cités) had become nodes in a global jihadi network stretching from Algeria to Chechnya to Afghanistan.

France’s War on Terror

Since the 1995 bombings in Paris, France has operated under the Vigipirate anti-terrorist plan under which gendarmes and riot police, deployed to guard schools, transportation hubs, government buildings and centers of tourism, regularly perform random identity checks on North African youth, resulting in countless arrests and deportations of undocumented migrants. In recent years, these security measures have been tightened, with former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and later current Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy mobilizing tens of thousands of additional riot police and gendarmes to patrol the “Islamic suburbs,” effectively militarizing French cités. In an effort to destroy clandestine mosques and Islamic associations, Sarkozy likewise criminalized congregations in the entries, basements and garages of public housing projects.

Alongside these security measures, the government has sought to create a secular brand of “French Islam” and sell it to the French Muslim community as a whole. In the wake of the 1989 hijab affair, Interior Minister Pierre Joxe created the Working Council on Islam in France, a commission of six imams, in an effort to “republicanize” Islam into a secular religion. Joxe’s successor, Charles Pasqua, continued this process, working with the Algerian rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, to establish an Advisory Council of French Muslims that would fix the dates of Islamic rituals and regulate their public practice. The resultant Charter of the Muslim Faith in France declared the “emergence of a French Islam and its normal insertion into the national community on an equal basis with other religions.” This Islam “strives for the development of an expression of laïcité that will bring religions and the state into a state of harmony.” In the words of the charter, French Muslims, “loyal to the most authentic Muslim tradition, disassociate themselves from all extremisms and bear witness to their attachment to the state which…guarantees the freedom of religion and treats all religions as equals.”

Pasqua and Boubakeur’s efforts were opposed by the two major Islamic umbrella organizations in France: the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF), which has close ties to Morocco, and the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), which has supposed historical links to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Resentful of the Grand Mosque’s influence, in 1995 they created their own High Council of French Muslims to “assemble all democratic Muslims in defense of the principles of laïcité.” Given this multiplication of institutions speaking in the name of French Muslims, the process of national Islamic organization was stillborn.

After the September 11 attacks, Sarkozy breathed new life into the process by creating a French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). In a January 2003 radio interview, he claimed of this council: “It’s a chance to create an official Islam of France and a way to fight the Islam of cellars and garages (l’Islam des caves)—an underground, clandestine Islam that feeds fundamentalism and extremism.” In opposing and Islam des caves to an “Islam of the mosques,” Sarkozy implicitly linked the unofficial Islamic organization in the cités to global Islamist terrorism, at that time preeminently pictured as al-Qaeda fighters holed up in the caves of Afghanistan. While the CFCM was an elected body chosen by French Muslims and supported by an estimated 80 percent of mosques, Sarkozy worked to guarantee its secularist tendency, pre-assigning the first presidency to Boubakeur. When the April 2003 elections gave majority representation to the FNMF and UOIF over the Grand Mosque (which won only 6 of the 40 available seats), Sarkozy threatened to expel imams whose views ran counter to laïcité and close their mosques.

“New Anti-Semitism”

The proposed law against religious “signs and dress” builds directly on these efforts. Although the legislation is titled “the law relating to the application of the principle of laïcité in public grammar, middle and high schools,” debate in the French press has mostly referred to the “law against the veil.” “Massively excessive” crosses are nearly non-existent in French public schools, although Education Minister Luc Ferry did denounce crosses worn by the very small Assyrian-Chaldean Christian community. Likewise, the Jewish kippa is a rarity in public schools, as the orthodox Jewish community has a thriving private school network. If the Catholic Church (including the Pope and the French archbishop) has been outspoken against the law, Jewish groups have been noticeably reticent, if not explicitly supportive.

Indeed, the timing of the law is in no small part due to the outrage expressed by Jewish organizations over the supposed growth of a “new anti-Semitism” perpetrated by French Muslims. Whereas traditional anti-Semitic violence in France has been racially or religiously motivated and generally enacted by far right nativist groups, recent attacks on Jewish children and property in the French cités have been seen as inherently political. In particular, as was expressed in an April 2003 investigative article in Vanity Fair, these attacks have been decried as the logical outgrowth of the rampant anti-Zionism among North Africans in France. The French state, with its alleged pro-Palestinian bent and refusal to participate in the war in Iraq, is seen as directly complicit in the violence. Statistics on anti-Semitic crimes in France are highly disputed, though French law enforcement agencies reported no statistical rise in attacks on Jewish targets during the 2003 calendar year.

In any case, the media frenzy around the attacks prompted Chirac to announce in November 2003 the formation of a special committee to fight anti-Semitism, a new ambassadorial post to improve relations between France and world Jewry, and extra funds for education about anti-Semitism in neighborhoods heavily inhabited by North Africans. Chirac’s proposal of the new laïcité law followed in the ensuing month.

Citizenship and the Sacred State

Contrary to Chirac and Ferry’s claims that the proposed law only affirms the present doctrine of laïcité, the measure would mark a significant departure from prior legislation. If previous laws sought to protect the religious neutrality of the state and “religious freedom,” the new proposal explicitly fights against the “communitarianism” and “inequality” that the headscarf has come to represent in France. Invoking the need for a “open and dynamic laïcité,” the Stasi report approached the public school as a privileged “closed universe” where unifying national values of male-female equality and mutual respect are taught. The headscarf, as a sign of female subjugation and communitarianism, is particularly threatening to the implicit mission of the school—the formation of future citizens. “Religious freedom,” although the supposed root of laïcité, must be sacrificed in the name of national unity.

The laïcité invoked in the Stasi report and the proposed law therefore operates much like a religion, with the nation (and its metonymy, the public school) operating as the moral symbol of collective solidarity. It is not because church and state in France are separated that the headscarf remains a sticking point for French republican ideology. Rather, it is because they are functionally one and the same; the state is, for all practical purposes, the church of republican France.

Although the Stasi report recommended that any legislation accommodate local contexts, and Ferry has assured critics that the proposed law will be applied with “discretion,” the law as proposed seeks universal application across metropolitan France and its overseas provinces. No special consideration has been made for the eastern regions of Alsace-Moselle, in which, having been part of Germany at the time of the 1905 law, religious instruction is still an integral part of the official curriculum, crucifixes remain affixed to classroom walls and the ranks of teachers include cross-wearing nuns. Meanwhile, officials in the Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Mayotte, with large local Muslim populations and a long history of formal incorporation of religious faith into public life, fear that the proposed law will create tensions between communities hitherto existing in relative harmony. The fate of turban-wearing Sikhs—a community at least 5,000 strong neglected by the Stasi commission—has yet to be decided. Although Ferry has resisted efforts by members of his own conservative party to expand the legislation to include any “visible” or “political” symbols, he has insisted on a flexible interpretation of banned “signs” to include beards and bandanas if school officials interpret them as denoting religious affiliation.

Strange Bedfellows

Support for and opposition to the law has brought together strange bedfellows. Leftist intellectuals like Debray and Touraine, true believers in the sacredness of the State, see the law as a necessary prop for the secular French republic they uphold as the apex of universal Enlightenment values. Law-and-order right-wingers, including Sarkozy, view the law as an important weapon in their ongoing “war on terror.” The law has equally strong support from feminists like Fadela Amara, president of the association Ni Putes Ni Soumises (“Neither Whores Nor Downtrodden”) that fights for the rights and safety of North African women in the French suburbs, and Khalida Messaoudi, who famously referred to the headscarf as “our yellow star.” Likewise, Berber activists in France and North Africa have been outspoken in favor of the law, as it aids their ongoing struggle against Islamist groups, and places them in a strong position to receive French state support in the name of their declared laïcité. Most ironically, the law dovetails with the ideologies of the xenophobic National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which has been arguing for years that Muslim immigrants should assimilate or leave. Indeed, members of the above camps who oppose the law often do so out of fear that it will abet the National Front’s campaign in upcoming elections.

In contrast, critics of the proposed law—including, notably, the major French teachers’ unions—generally fear that it will stigmatize French Muslims and exacerbate already fragile relations between religious and ethnic communities. Already on December 26, 2003, barely a week after Chirac announced the law, a security guard at a Paris branch of the Société Générale bank barred a woman’s entry after she refused to follow a sign requiring customers to remove “scarves, caps, helmets and all other head coverings and sunglasses.” Faced with such incidents, anti-racist organizations find themselves torn between their principled support for laïcité and their battle against discrimination. One of the founders of SOS-Racisme quit his organization and joined its rival, the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, after the former came out in support of the law. Muslim organizations find themselves in a similar predicament, with Boubakeur strongly supporting the law, the FNMF being cautiously optimistic and the UOIF opposing it. To a great extent, the dilemma faced by anti-racist and Muslim groups has sprung from their hesitancy to associate with the most vocal opponents of the law—including Tariq Ramadan and the French Muslims Party (PMF)—who have been widely accused of fundamentalism and anti-Semitism.

Since Chirac’s announcement, protests against the proposed legislation have occurred across the world, in France, Europe, North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The international protests have generally denounced the law as racist and hypocritical. Imams in places as diverse as London, Gaza and Tehran have insisted that the hijab is an indispensable religious obligation, and that that any law banning it is a direct attack on Islam. To counter these claims, Sarkozy made an impromptu trip to al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he secured a statement of support from its grand sheikh, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, who opined that Muslims residing in a non-Muslim country were obliged to abide by all local laws. However, this principle was immediately contested by clerics worldwide, including at al-Azhar itself, who denied Tantawi’s authority to speak on such matters.

Tricolor Scarves

If international protests have scripted the French law within a war of religions, French Muslim demonstrators have opposed the law under the French state’s own rubric of human rights and citizenship. On January 17, 2004, exactly one month after Chirac proposed the law, over 20,000 French Muslims—mostly women wearing various forms of hijab—took the streets of Paris, Lille, Marseille, Mulhouse and other cities to protest the legislation. With their spoken, worn and carried “signs,” the women insisted on the headscarf as a universal—not religious—right. Countering the discourse linking the “veil” to the subjugation of Muslim women, they insisted that their decision to wear the hijab emerged from their own free will. Up to 10,000 rallied in Lille at a gathering organized by a group of French Muslim women called the Collective for Free Choice. Women marching in the equally large Paris demonstration alternated between chants of “Chirac, Sarkozy, we chose the headscarf” (Chirac, Sarkozy, le foulard on l’a choisi) and “Not our fathers nor our husbands, we chose the headscarf” (ni père, ni mari, le foulard on l’a choisi). In like fashion, protesters throughout the country parodied the anti-headscarf positions of Neither Whores Nor Downtrodden with banners bearing some version of “Neither Forced Nor Downtrodden” (ni forcées ni soumises) or “Neither Duped Nor Downtrodden” (ni dupes ni soumises).

Alongside these evocations of freedom of choice, the protesting women embraced their simultaneous identity as Muslims and French citizens. Demonstrators throughout France carried French flags, marched with banners evoking “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, laïcité,” released blue-white-and-red balloons, and even wore headscarves emblazoned with the French tricolor. They faultlessly sang the “Marseillaise,” including, as reporters remarked with amazement, verses seldom heard at national celebrations. The women likewise staked out their religious citizenship, declaring themselves to be “proud to be French and Muslim.” Protesters in Nice intoned, “We, French Muslim women, we defend the republic, liberties and laïcité,” while at the same time letting Chirac know that “we don’t want your law.” In perhaps the most evocative display of citizenship, demonstrators throughout the country waved their national identity cards while chanting some version of “one headscarf = one vote.” Beyond a reminder to politicians of the importance of the Muslim vote in the upcoming regional elections, the gesture was a poignant illustration that citizenship—French and Islamic—is always a sacred affair.


How to cite this article:

Paul Silverstein "Headscarves and the French Tricolor," Middle East Report Online, January 30, 2004.

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