France's Search for a New Compromise

Article excerpt


A CONSENSUS SEEMS TO BE EMERGING IN the international media that the French law to ban the wearing of the veil and the displaying of conspicuous religious symbols at school is a mistake. Writing in Le Monde on January 15, 2004, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens argued against the ban on the veil on the grounds that the veil comes in too many shapes and sizes to adopt any legislation on the matter. This is certainly the case in Britain. There are women walking on London's Edgware Road in burkas. The friendly English heardscarf is now part of the uniform approved for Muslim policewomen to wear under their hats. There is also the Burberry or the Louis Vutton headscarf worn by Muslim women browsing the expensive shops of Bond Street. Headscarves in Britain, like everything else in this country, are very much determined by class.

Banning the veil is not unique to France. Recently, an 11-year-old girl from Muskogee, Oklahoma, was sent home from her school for wearing her veil. However, in contrast with the French, the U.S. Justice Department has opted to support her complaint. To the great relief of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the American government has decided that banning the veil violates the constitutional protection of religious freedom. Since 1998, the veil has also been debated in Germany, especially in the state of Baden-Württemberg where a young woman was denied a job because she wore a headscarf. The Consitutional Court ruled that under current laws she could wear the scarf. But it also said individual states could enact new laws banning the veil.

Obviously, the debate in France is part of a bigger trend. Since 9/11, the West feels vulnerable, and identity politics is no longer what it was. In most countries, people are now more insistent on what unites them and less inclined to delight in their cultural differences. For example, as reported in The Economist on February 7, 2004, British Home secretary David Blunkett believes the British tradition of laissez faire is inadequate. He plans to introduce citizenship courses into the school curriculum. British Muslims cannot be only Muslims; they must also accept certain core values defining what it means to be British. Across the Irish Sea, civic education is being debated as well. The Irish government intends to ask its electorate to vote on a constitutional amendment that would standardize Ireland's citizenship policy with that prevailing in the rest of Europe. At the moment, any child of an immigrant family born in the Republic is, with his or her family, automatically granted Irish citizenship. This is one of the least restrictive citizenship laws in the world.

There are five to six million Muslims living in France. In comparison with the late 1990s, when 2,000 cases of young girls wearing the veil was reported, only 200 cases have been reported so far in 2004. This cannot be portrayed as a major assault on France's laïcité. Moreover, when probed for their opinion on the veil, most girls interviewed say they identify with republican values. It is understood and accepted that being French means belief in a set of common political values defined by equal rights, laïcité and citizenship.

There is disagreement, however, among Muslim women. There are anti-veil and the pro-veil feminists. Some think that there is no contradiction between women wearing the veil and their being loyal to France. Others argue that the veil is a symbol of oppression of women. The London Review of Books reported on February 19 that a very large number of Muslim women signed a petition published in Elle magazine in support of the ban. The support of some French Muslims for the legislation is a healthy sign that France's Muslim community is not a monolithic group.

Religious rights and women's rights are not always easy to reconcile. But clearly there are ways of addressing the isssues other than legislating against religious symbols. …