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The headscarf debate in France

· To accept or reject religious signs? ·

Why does the veil cause so much discussion in France? To ask the question in these terms is already a way to highlight one of its ambiguities: are we talking about the veil in general (including the one worn by some Catholic nuns) or the Muslim veil?

In reality, although in France, from the 1905 law separating Church from the State, there have always been fervent opponents of the use of the cassock in the street, there are also - and this is positive - supporters of a more open secularism. Over the years they have managed to find a balance, as evidenced by the private Catholic schools "under contract with the state", the chaplaincy services in prisons, hospitals and so on. At the end of the nineties, it was therefore the Islamic veil that relaunched the debate and lead to the current tensions related to religious symbols.

To understand them one can note two French particularities. Since the time, in September 1989, when three pupils of Creil (Oise) decided to go to class veiled, in French society the idea has been imposed that young Muslim women who wear the Islamic headscarf are doing this because they would be obliged their father or husband, and with a view to proselytization. Even if they deny this themselves (with stronger or weaker arguments) and although the many sociological studies tend to see in this return to visibility the effects of a search for identity of young people who come up against difficulties of integration.

Other European countries, which have to contend with the same problem, give priority to the acceptance of these young people in school, rightly convinced that education is indispensable for them. France, for its part, refuses to give up on its own principles: in the name of freedom of conscience (their own and those of their classmates), the veiled young people are often excluded from their institutions. In the end, the 2004 law that bans ostentatious religious signs at school, is generally regarded as a "better way", because it establishes a relatively precise framework for signs prohibited and above all it makesdialogue with the student a condition precedent to the sanction. If it is true that the text has not regulated in any way all matters related to the expression of religious beliefs in schools, we must recognize that since then the exclusions have been drastically decreased.

Another French peculiarity: in addition to state neutrality with respect to religion, our secularism provides a strict equality of treatment towards them. Although the debate regularly becomes heated around Muslim practices, a law will never make reference to Islam.

Thus, the 2004 law prohibits "ostentatious religious symbols” (including crosses"clearly excessive in size") and that of 2010 - which covers the use of the niqab - prohibits "the concealment of the face in public space”. In other words, all these provisions that aim - according to their authors - to protect Muslims (particularly Muslim women) from a too backward-looking vision of their religion lead, eventually, to restrict the freedom of religion for all. But in France there are few who are concerned! The recent dismissal of a veiled employee from a collective nursery school, Baby –Loup, led to the presentation of at least five bills that restrict the use of religious symbols in schools that take in children in early childhood, including private companies.

Catholics themselves, at the beginning very open to the use of the Muslim headscarf, have slowly hardened in their outlook, to the extent that a (minority) fundamentalist current has progressed and diversified the claims of Muslims regarding their practices in canteens, hospitals and so on.

The difficulty consists - for all religions and for those not prepared to see them relegated to a private sphere that is more and more limited - in reminding the State that it would be a great shame (and certainly counterproductive in the end) if the legitimate maintenance of public order - and therefore the fight against radical ideologies, even those of religious inspiration - were to lead to the disappearance of the expression of every belief in the public space.

Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 20, 2019