We cannot accept to have in our country women who
are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life,
deprived of identity.
FRENCH PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY, June 22, 2009
France is the first European country where the headscarf controversy became an important political problem and a legal issue that eventually led, in 2004, to the adoption of a law that banned ostentatious religious symbols from public middle and high schools.1 In France, Islam first became visible in public spaces in the 1970s. Among immigrants and their descendants, religion frequently gives structure to their lives. Several surveys published on the Muslim population in France confirm this strong relationship between Muslim immigrants and the practice of Islam. Historically, the question of Islam in France was discussed only in relation to the political context of the Maghreb (western North Africa) and its colonial past. As early as the 1870s, French authorities set up a two-tier system in Algeria, giving Muslim citizens in North Africa a particular personal status: local Catholics and Jews could become French citizens but Muslims could not. Officially, this policy was to protect the religious identity of Muslims, but the real reason behind it was to provide a public justification for discrimination against Muslims. Islam was seen as a barrier to Frenchness, and, in one way or another, this is still is the case today. As heirs of this colonial history, Muslim immigrants from North Africa have long considered themselves among the excluded in France and have lived their faith as discreetly as possible.2