Fabric of Society; Banning Headscarves Is Right. but It's Only a Start in Bringing France's Muslims into the Social Mainstream

By Kepel, Gilles | Newsweek International, February 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Fabric of Society; Banning Headscarves Is Right. but It's Only a Start in Bringing France's Muslims into the Social Mainstream


Kepel, Gilles, Newsweek International


Byline: Gilles Kepel, Kepel is chair of Middle East Studies at Institut de Sciences Politiques in Paris and author of "Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam."

Good news. Islamist radicals and U.S. neocons have joined ranks--finally--and buried the hatchet to launch a joint jihad cum crusade aimed at... the French. What could possibly forge such a bizarre and unholy coalition of the willing? The higab --the female veil, or head-scarf--worn by some Muslim pupils in French schools.

Ever since President Jacques Chirac announced his intention to ban the wearing of "all ostensible religious signs" in state schools, firebrand Muslim clerics have taken to Al Jazeera, lambasting the archenemy of Islam, France and its impious laicite, or secularism. At the other end of the political spectrum, libertarians and civil-society advocates at home and abroad have mounted a rear-guard offensive (in the guise of a moral crusade) against the authoritarian, racist and freedom-hating French state. Why on earth, they ask, should a few square inches of linen covering the hair of chaste and modest Muslim teenagers threaten France's identity? What's so special about the French--their laicite, their cuisine, their haute culture fashion that they so parade down the catwalks of Westernized life? After all, everyone knows Paris has become a mere touristic outpost of EuroDisney. So why the fuss?

The issue is being hotly debated in the National Assembly right now, drawing commentary left, right and center in most languages of the globe. All this is very different from the Frog-bashing and trashing we French grew accustomed to over the past year. Like America, France is a country of immigrants--except that, until fairly recently, it didn't show. Open the Paris phone book to any page, and you'll come upon dozens of names (like mine) that are not French. Poles, Italians, Spaniards, Central European and North African Jews came en masse over the last century, aspiring to become (to quote an old Yiddish saying) "happy as God in France." And many did, judging from the register of France's cultural, political and business elite.

Now comes the more recent immigrant wave--millions of Muslims who began arriving with the end of France's colonial empire. It was a time when France, emerging from World War II, was greedy for cheap labor. At first they were politically and culturally invisible; most were bachelors. But they didn't go back as expected and instead made France their home. They brought their wives, kids and fathered more children in France, most getting French citizenship. Yet the success that previous immigrants enjoyed did not grace them. The '70s and '80s were years of massive unemployment, and unskilled labor from North Africa paid an especially high toll. Fathers on the dole were hardly role models. With no upward mobility, the social attractiveness of French society got blurred. The kids were French; often they spoke no other language. But many felt estranged as traditional engines of integration--the workplace, unions, schools and Army--failed them.

Meanwhile, on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Islamist movements started to replace nationalists as the beacons of cultural identity.

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