At the end of last year, when the commission appointed by Jacques Chirac to look into the health of secular values in France delivered its recommendations, no one was surprised to hear that a ban on the wearing of all ostentatious religious symbols in schools, the Muslim hijab or veil above all, was high on the list. The deliberations were really about Islam and its inroads into French secular culture. The ban will become law before the next school term; the difficult interim has been a time to test loyalties to the Republic, immigrant and beur loyalties for the most part, and television has been the place to do it.

Many of the French Muslims (Muslims by ‘culture’ or ‘confession’) who’ve found themselves involved in the debate have been asked whether or not they’ll abide by the law, or encourage their friends and families to do so. Few have said they will not, because all telegenic advocates of the right to wear the veil in schools see themselves as republicans as well as Muslims. But they’d like the Republic to show a little flexibility on the matter of religious belief. The weakness in their position is that teachers in France, like nurses and doctors – increasingly snubbed by Muslim patients on the grounds that they’re the wrong (i.e. opposite) sex – have been showing flexibility for about twenty-five years. For most of the 1980s, the veil, or whatever might lie behind it, was scarcely an issue in the public mind, and certainly not the high political fashion it has now become among some young Muslim women. It was the conscientious Lionel Jospin who had to deal with the first big veil controversy, at the very end of the decade – he was minister of education at the time – involving a head teacher in Créteil who refused to let girls come to his school wearing it. Rather than rule or overrule, Jospin referred the matter to the advisory Conseil d’Etat. The opinion came back, in instalments, that on grounds of ‘pluralism’ and mindful of ‘the freedom of others’, it would be wrong to exclude veil-wearers from the classroom, provided they didn’t proselytise. The Créteil girls were reinstated.

A period of healthy, piecemeal negotiation followed. Some schools accepted the veil, others tolerated it, others did neither. Here and there, mediators appeared, adding to the complexity, and the visibility, of the negotiating process, and often achieving results. Hanifa Chérifi, the most famous of these mediators, has recently pointed out that in the mid-1990s there were around two thousand cases a year in need of mediation, whereas now, as the veil-ban comes into effect, there are fewer than two hundred. Why should a government consider such a drastic step when, on the face of it, the situation has become calmer?

Part of the difficulty is that after a long period of proceeding case by case, neither Muslim defenders of the veil nor its detractors can be sure what has worked and what hasn’t, or how – in either case – they should consolidate their positions on the basis of precedent. In the teaching body, meanwhile, the fact that schools have different policies has led to uneasiness on both sides, so that even teachers who have no objection to the veil being worn feel that a national ruling on the question is preferable to battling it out on the basis of personal conviction with colleagues who disagree with them. (The Republic can still ride to the rescue of the private conscience and relieve it of the burden of high public consequence in ways that are hard to imagine in Britain.)

Another factor is surely how difficult it’s got, since 11 September, to tell a man of God from a politician. ‘God bless you’ and ‘Allahu akbar’ are not part of political discourse in France as they are in the United States and the dar el-Islam. France can feel squeezed between the two (and niggled in a third way, so to speak, by the cross-Channel wash of Blair’s piety). People feel that their cherished secular state is now something of a redoubt, and are losing their taste for an open-ended attitude to the veil.

There are narrower political considerations, too. Last spring, Nicolas Sarkozy, the well-oiled, tough-talking rhetorical engine that now powers the Ministry of the Interior, attended a conference of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France. It was an important moment, because the Union – an Islamist grouping said to enjoy good relations with the Muslim Brothers in Egypt – had just taken a handsome proportion of the seats on the newly created Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, a body set up by the administration to channel, and to patronise, Islamic aspirations in France. Sarkozy’s presence at the conference was intended to bind the UOIF into the broad partnership that the government had hoped to create with French Muslim leaders under the auspices of the CFCM, and all went well until Sarkozy ventured to remark that ID photographs of women wearing the headscarf were no longer acceptable; hair would in future have to be on show. He was booed and heckled and despite the Union leadership’s attempt to calm the atmosphere, the press made much of it. It may have struck the administration that it was beginning to look like the weaker partner in this careful rapprochement with Islam; in any case, by the summer, with public thinking about the veil taking another ungenerous turn, Chirac moved to set up the commission.

What did Sarkozy think he was doing? Difficult to tell: he is an impassioned, ambitious and scary figure, who has staked his reputation so far – and his future as a possible president in 2007 – on the major law and order issues. In the French political imagination, the key law and order site is the ‘banlieue’, for which ‘suburb’ no longer seems the right word in English. The banlieue still retains a romantic tinge of marginality – creative exemption from the idiocy of metropolitan life – but in France this artsy, edgy quality, whose English equivalent is so well loved by J.G. Ballard and Hanif Kureishi, is rapidly giving way to a vision of despair, incivility and lawlessness on housing estates. Sarkozy needs to point these elements up in order to strengthen his appeal, but a man who needs the banlieues, where so many of France’s Muslims live – the figures are anywhere between four and six million – is a man who must sooner or later decide how he wishes to play the Islamic card.

In arriving at his decision, Sarkozy has drawn on the model he developed for his original law and order campaign: crack down on insecurity, reclaim (and repolice) so-called no-go areas in the banlieues, promise a better life all round. On the overlapping question of Islam, his policy is much the same: though he’s been troubled by the veil law in schools (he worries that it’s unenforceable), he believes Islam has the potential to become a cultural no-go area and so he is taking it on, while promising more money and more mechanisms to end discrimination against Muslim immigrants and their children. (He even favours the controversial path of affirmative action.) It follows implicitly from this approach that the veil, and the perceived growth of identity politics for which it stands, are the result not of a real cultural disposition, but of ‘despair’ in the urban hinterlands: dispossession and joblessness – ‘stakelessness’, a Blairite might say. Sarkozy wants ‘integration’ – an old-fashioned word to British race-relations veterans – and so, apparently, does most French public opinion, quite a lot of it Muslim.

On the government’s other flank stand the National Front and Bruno Mégret’s Mouvement National Républicain, which still have the capacity to bruise the centre right. With regional elections next month, the veil has provided a pretext for the ruling UMP to show that it is policing proper republican standards, in ways that both the far right and the religion-mongers of immigrant descent are not – and to steal some of Le Pen’s thunder. Le Pen has inadvertently flattered the government by opposing the ban – when it comes to veil-politics he hasn’t much room for manoeuvre – on the grounds that by wearing the hijab, Muslim women distinguish themselves from ‘les Français de souche’, i.e. people of bona fide Gallic stock, and that this is fine: it will make things easier, the implication is, when it comes to throwing them out.

If the jockeying for position looks cheap, the commission’s report and the passage into law of the ban on veils in schools have been costly – and full of bitter hyperbole. What is this thing young women are not supposed to be wearing, after all? It’s not the full-blown burka or the chador that is at issue, but the simple, elegant headscarf with which Muslim women in France cover their hair, ears and throat. That it became a vogue and then a symbol of solidarity with Arabs and Muslims in other parts of the world, and that students then began to come to school with their heads covered – these are eventualities a robust society might have taken in its stride. France is certainly robust, but the tone struck by the teachers, the government and the media is one of deep suspicion, first that women are being bullied into wearing the veil by groups of Islamic radicals in the banlieues and second that once you let religion back through the school gates – from which it was gloriously expelled in 1905 – you undermine your duty to provide a serious education, free of cant and superstition.

Teachers tell worrying stories which depict the veil as the beginning of selective opposition to the curriculum. This might, for example, include a Muslim student’s refusal to do gym or discuss certain areas of natural science, or to countenance teaching on the Holocaust, and then shade off into abuse or physical violence after a classroom session on the Middle East. Teachers are also clear that the wearing of religious symbols tends to exacerbate the divisions over heated issues such as Palestine. This is a management issue then, as much as a matter of principle, and a very urgent one, because of the frightening rise of anti-semitic harassment in French schools. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, during one school term alone, more than four hundred anti-semitic incidents were reported, which is why, on the eve of the war, the minister of education, Luc Ferry, suggested the time had come for students to ‘drop crosses, veils, skullcaps’ and ‘play by the Republic’s rules’. Matters have hardly improved since then, and the problem is not confined to schools. Crucially, most of the trouble is now alleged to be caused not by the far right but by groups of impoverished, radicalised Muslims, mostly in the banlieues. As a result French Jewish emigration has increased massively in the last three years – in 2002 it was more than double the previous year – and according to the Israeli Government movement from France to Israel itself has reached levels last seen at the time of the Six Day War.

In Britain, we know how to nurture an ironic infatuation with signs of difference, status and style. Maybe the flummery and camp of our political institutions and our enthusiastic approval of layering and posturing have helped us to achieve our multiculturalism. That we got usefully from Black Rod’s tights to Ali G’s tracksuit (probably via Dad’s Army) is not going to help us understand the French position, whose Jacobin demand for the transparent citizen is something we recoil from. Yet this is not the state intruding into private life by outlawing the veil everywhere except the home, so much as an attempt to end the intrusion of dogmas held by private individuals and groups into public space. Nor is it as brazen as the German approach, which is shaping up, in some regions, as a piece of discrimination against Islamic signs alone, leaving crosses and yarmulkas within the law; in the French version, the yarmulka is out and the cross (along with the hand of Fatima and the Star of David) has to be very discreet, while some tricky technical problems remain over how to rule on Sikh students.

Opponents, including the main French human rights organisation, La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, have argued rightly that the veil is the real target here, but it is not pure hypocrisy for the French establishment to invoke a hardwon secular tradition. The old law of 1905 separating church and state has been much discussed in the course of the veil controversy, particularly by women who support the new one, and it is to women – of Muslim and non-Muslim origin – that the most eloquent defence of the ban so often falls. Painless birth was ferociously condemned by Pius XII in the 1950s, the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter reminded a television audience in January, to illustrate her point that every attempt by women to ‘take charge of their bodies’ has been made in the face of religious opinion, and that the issue of the veil is no different.

It matters that many Muslim women should agree with this, even if they do so only in the consensual media of the Republic: Elle magazine for instance. The list of signatories to a recent Elle petition urging the president to introduce the ban included a disproportionately high number of women of Muslim origin or culture – two to three times higher than the 7 per cent of Muslims thought to obtain in the French population as a whole. It also matters when they speak out individually, all the more so because the sous-entendu of Chirac’s commission is that undisclosed evidence it took from young Muslim women contradicted the jaunty view of the veil as an expression of personal choice.

In many cases it clearly is; and so, beyond the pages of Elle and Le Figaro, there is growing talk of ‘Islamophobia’ and fear of an anti-Muslim conspiracy. But what is especially painful is to see the veil-wearing feminist and the anti-veil feminist failing utterly to understand one another, as Saïda Kada, a co-author of L’une voilée, l’autre pas, in defence of the veil, and Nadia Amiri, a sociologist born in Algeria, and an outspoken anti-chadorista, failed in a recent edition of France 2’s Cent Minutes pour convaincre (the ‘convaincre’ changed, for this piece of splendid national soul-searching, to ‘comprendre’). Saïda Kada claims to share the non-Muslim dislike of repressive practices in the name of Islam (arranged marriages and stoning – also arranged – are always the ones that people like her have to deal with in public debate), but it is clear that her first priority is to keep the confidence of her own community, which also means hanging on to her hijab and weighing her words to non-Muslims with very great care, in the knowledge that she is also being heard by Muslims whose views are far less nuanced and who would deny her any influence were she to put a foot wrong.

Republicanism doesn’t go for this: it is regarded as wicked ambiguity rather than a tricky position, and so the reply from Nadia Amiri is simply that while Saïda Kada was busy being one of life’s negotiators, she, Amiri, was on the streets protesting the Nigerian decision to stone Amina Lawal for adultery and failing to find a single veiled woman coming out in solidarity, which is a powerful argument, whichever way you look at it. Marianne can in principle be of any ethnic origin, provided she speaks her mind and takes to the barricades on matters of great international or national – sorry, republican – moment.

Régis Debray, who sat on Chirac’s commission, and who is strongly in favour of the ban, has argued that religion – what we’d call RE – should be taught in state schools. It is becoming a familiar refrain. The trouble is that if you can’t teach reproductive biology to people because they’re too entrenched in their sense of injustice and exclusion, or even keep them from taunting Jews outside the school gates, a lofty comparative study of sacred texts is not going to get you much further. Indeed, you are better off with a ban on all visible signs of religious affiliation. The real danger, however, is that the veil will be prohibited in schools and that the government, or successive governments, will simply run out of steam on the Republic’s promise to French Muslims, leaving them to stew in the banlieues without the slightest material confirmation that they ‘belong’ in France.

Meanwhile, there is the creation myth of the Republic itself, constantly reaffirmed, and rehearsed in microcosm every time a child enters the école maternelle, under the benign gaze of a Marianne clone known as la maîtresse, to embark on the mini-myth of perfect, secular citizenship. However much one prefers it to the sullen burblings of the great monotheisms, this too is a cult, worthy of impartial examination – only maybe not this minute.

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Vol. 26 No. 5 · 4 March 2004

Jeremy Harding’s ambivalent piece on the French veil debate misses a crucial point (LRB, 19 February). The invocation of the ‘Republic’ and of France’s secular tradition by supporters of the ban on the hijab is based on a historical misunderstanding. From the very outset there was bitter conflict as to who exactly should be the beneficiaries of liberty, equality and fraternity. Were these universal principles to be extended to women, unskilled workers or the blind? Babeuf was one of the few who argued for full citizenship rights for women.

The introduction of universal education and the separation of church and state were scarcely a simple expression of the onward march of Enlightenment. Jules Ferry, the founder of universal secular primary education, also oversaw the colonisation of Indochina. There was no contradiction here: the myth of the ‘civilising mission’ lay at the heart of French imperialism. France, in the late 19th century, was a largely peasant country in which many citizens had only the vaguest notions of national identity. The Vatican still carried considerable political weight; the aim of laïcité was to ensure that French workers and peasants looked to Paris, not to Rome.

If the French left is ever to face the challenges of the new century, it will have to reexamine the whole ‘Republican’ tradition.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Vol. 26 No. 6 · 18 March 2004

Jeremy Harding’s piece on the hijab debate in France (LRB, 19 February) reminded me of my days as a teacher at Walthamstow Girls, in the late 1970s, when the issue was not headscarves, but trousers. Eventually, the headmistress conceded that the girls could wear trousers (it hadn’t been very long since women teachers were sent home for the same offence). Then some of the girls turned up in the shalwar and she drew the line. When is a pair of trousers not a pair of trousers? The precise shade of green remained an issue (‘Bottle-green, Shazia, not emerald green!’). When the girls started wearing headscarves about ten years later, a token gesture was made – ‘All girls must get their parents to write a letter to the headteacher saying their daughter will be wearing a headscarf’ – but this wasn’t observed in practice. Walthamstow Girls, and the school I was assigned to next, also a girls’ school, did adapt in all sorts of ways to their Muslim students, setting aside a room for prayer during Ramadan, allowing them to wear trousers for games, or bow out of swimming. Both schools, for what it’s worth, achieved far better GCSE results than the nearly all-white schools at the other end of the borough.

John Welch
London N16

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