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L’affaire du voile

“You are the Trojan Horse of Islam.”

« Vous êtes le cheval de Troie de l’islamisme, » a professor proclaims to a lecture hall of 150 students. He speaks specifically to a freshman girl attending his history course, who wears a long veil and dress, leaving only her face exposed. The professor implies that the Muslim girl attempts to silently usurp the French idea of la laïcité, or separation of church and state, through her religious garb. A ripple of shock runs through the Amphiteatre Bruno Etienne. It is a large lecture hall that ironically has two Christian crosses decorating the walls; even more ironically, its namesake, Bruno Etienne, was a scholar and sociologist specializing in Islam. After a few moments of uncertainty, a group of students stands up and leaves the class in protest and in solidarity with their classmate.

She is the first Muslim student at the Institute d’Etudes Politiques in Aix-en-Provence, France, to wear a full veil to class.

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“La laïcité” is a cornerstone of La Republique, and yet one of the most polemic aspects of the nation. In 2004, the government passed a law banning religious symbols that are shown “ostensiblement” – or conspicuously – in all public schools. Notably, while the law tolerates a simple cross on a chain, headscarves worn by Muslim females are unequivocally banned.

That same fateful year, 3,000 miles away, the Constitution of the United States led the American government to the exact opposite conclusion. This time, the girl in question was Nashala Hearn, she was 12 years old, and she wanted to wear a headscarf to public school. After wearing the veil for several weeks, she was eventually suspended for violating the dress code of the Muskogee, Oklahoma public school she attended. In this case, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division decided to act to protect Nashala’s rights.

The White House’s official website, which features the story, writes that, “This degree reflects the principle that children should not have to choose between following the requirements of their faiths and their right to a public education.” So how can the French rationalize a law that seems to uphold the exact opposite principle? After all, France is a developed and democratic country, responsible for the groundbreaking revolution of “Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité” – freedom of religion shouldn’t be a question up for debate.

The answer to this question lies in a certain French mentality, one which stems from France’s unique historical and cultural experience.

Since 1905, France has had a strict law declaring the country to be laique – that is, secular. The tradition of secularism didn’t first appear in 1905. It was sparked as early as the 1789 Revolution, where revolutionaries promoted enlightened thinking over traditionalism and a Catholic monarchy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, following many controversies which mirrored Nashala Hearn’s case, the French government realized that something concrete needed to be done. Following an investigation by a task force named the “Stasi Commission” after Bernard Stasi, the chief investigator, they reached the conclusion that ostensibly religious symbols violated the laique principles of the country. Their reasoning centered around testimonies from young Muslim women in immigrant communities who felt pressured to wear headscarves, as well as a desire to uphold gender equality and equal protection and opportunity for all citizens. An organization central to this debate was the feminist group “Ni putes Ni Soumises” (“Neither whores nor submissives”), founded in 2003. The group was a strong supporter of the proposed law, as its members believed the proposed law prevented the subjugation of women – in this case, primarily young students. Its website describes their actions to promote this law as “fighting against all those who exploit religions.” The group was also a strong proponent of the 2010 law that banned full burqas – veils that cover women entirely, including their face – in all public spaces in France. Their justification as a feminist group was that the ban is a “resistance against fundamentalists who want to imprison women and exclude them from our society.”

A crucial link, therefore, between the controversial 2004 law and laïcité is attempts by the French to uphold their essential value of equality – here, between genders. “The French justification of this law comes from the desire to promote and protect French values,” comments Jean Michel Cosse, a professor of French language and culture at the American University Center of Provence. “The lawmakers felt that an oppression can never be accepted, even if it comes from a religious motivation. In the case of incompatibility between the values of a country and religion, the morals of the country must prevail.”

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So how does this investigation, and its conclusion, mirror the French mentality in general? It’s impossible to understand this attitude and promotion of values that are inherently “French” without understanding the French historical context – that is, the Revolution – and this history’s massive repercussions on modern society. The Revolution of 1789 obliterated the entrenched idea of “Trois Ordres,”or the “Three Estates,” which once divided the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners.

The eradication of these ingrained estates resulted in a feverish desire to promote the citizenship of the people of France above all else. Consequently, the French have a very different outlook on “communautarisme,” or the promotion of separate cultural communities, than other countries might. The idea of cultural groups living together and closing themselves off from integrating into French society is seen as contrary to core republican values. “The dynamic of modern France consists of cultivating a common denominator. The state protects its citizens, who all have the same rights, and not any specific groups,” explains Professor Cosse.

Yet the French antagonism towards Islamic religious expression stems from more than just an avoidance of promoting one group over another. It also derives from a different outlook on individualism versus the collective rights of an entire country. “The French have a different attitude towards promoting individual differences than Americans do,” comments Professor Cosse. “In the Hofstede ranking of the individualist vs. collectivist of countries around the word, the United States ranks number one for individualism. France is much lower, at eleventh.”

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The controversy at Sciences Po highlights a complex and controversial aspect of the French laws on laïcité. The law does not specifically ban religious symbols at universities, though for some, the wearing of a full veil in a scholarly institution undermines fundamental French values.

Yet for many students at IEP Aix, their classmate has the liberty to wear a veil if she wants.  Following the professor’s comment in the middle of class, many chose to leave the lecture hall as a sign of protest.

Gabriela de Frutos, a Spanish-Chilean exchange student studying at Sciences Po for the semester, was “shocked” when she heard about the incident. Raised in the United States in a “multicultural household,” she expressed her agreement with the French values of providing an “education that is equal and secular,” but also emphasizes that “it was unacceptable for the professor to single her out in front of a whole lecture class. If he really had a problem with it, he should have called her aside after class.”

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So where will France go from here? With ten years of perspective on the law banning religious symbols in schools, opinion is still divided whether the government’s attempts to give equal protection to French children have succeeded. In the United States, too, we constantly witness struggles over the separation of church and state. While students are at liberty to wear whatever religious symbols they desire, school curricula featuring creationism and Christianity are constantly debated.  Interestingly, this issue isn’t a problem for the French, as the government sets their curriculum.

It is important to note too, that for the French, the law is seen as a big compromise. “The veil is authorized in private spaces and many public spaces,” explains Professor Cosse. “France respects people who are Muslim, and they in turn must respect French institutions – in this case, school and its values.”

Laicité and its values have many positives, too. Jihane Zhr, a student at the prestigious engineering university Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts et Métiers, was raised in Morocco until high school, where “Islam is the national religion.” For her, a country without laïcité means, “students have difficulties accepting others’ beliefs. Laïcité helps young people to find their way without social pressures.” However, she is eager to underline the lack of law regarding universities. “The law is very clear. Students have the right to express their beliefs in a free way…I’m really happy that students reacted to the teacher’s hateful words. That means that they are convinced of the real meaning of laïcité, which is respecting others and accepting different opinions and beliefs.”  

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