France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?

Johannes Willms
26 February 2004

Since the 1789 revolution the French state has used its school system to make French citizens out of people from the country’s many different regions: Corsica, the Basque areas, Provence, Brittany, Gascony, Savoie (Italian), Alsace-Lorraine. In the late 19th century, the process intensified under the influence of a centralist state. The memorable title of Eugen Weber’s fascinating book evokes its profoundly transformative impact: Peasants into Frenchmen (1976).

The wars, colonial struggles and economic cycles of the 20th century brought new generations of children into French schools: east European Jews, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Senegalese, Algerians. All, whatever their origin and first language, rote-learned the stories of nos ancêtres, les gallois (“our ancestors, the French”).

There are successful examples of “assimilation by education” in many fields of French national life – from soccer to cinema, literature to politics. The most prominent current example is the minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy – the son of an aristocratic Hungarian refugee who fled his homeland in 1944.

So it is both ironic and appropriate that the ambitious, charismatic Sarkozy – “the government’s Zinedine Zidane”, according to an ally – has been in the frontline of the latest stage in this long national project: the French parliament’s controversial new law enforcing a ban on the display of explicit religious symbols in educational institutions.

The law decrees that “in schools, junior high schools and high schools, signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden.” It is neutrally phrased and in principle applies equally to Catholic crucifixes or Jewish kippah; moreover, it is intended to confirm and consistently apply existing practice, rather than to establish a new legal order. In this sense it is a continuation of a historical project rather than a fresh departure.

For all that, the controversy that the measure has provoked in France reflects the sense among both proponents and opponents that it had a tangible, specific target: the Islamic headscarves of young women, members of the 3.26 million-strong Muslim population of France.

Realms of history

The law confirming a prohibition on the wearing of religious apparel in state schools was passed by the French parliament on 10 February 2004 with an overwhelming, cross-partisan majority – 494-36, with 31 abstentions. The senate, the upper house of parliament, is now considering the law for final approval.

It must be stressed that the law applies only to state-run schools, not to private schools run by religious institutions which are obliged only to teach elements of the national curriculum. Thus, French Muslim people who want their daughters to wear the headscarf still have a choice. In the northern city of Lille, for example, a Muslim private school has operated since September 2003, and like similar Catholic, Protestant or Jewish schools is entitled to state subsidies.

Yet despite the political majority in support of the law, and the continuing space for religious education in France, the law provoked an eruption of intense protest among Muslims and sections of the French left – accompanied by a mixture of bafflement and outrage outside the country.

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If these reactions had no effect, the explanation lies in a mixture of history and political opportunism. The continuing desire of the French centre-right not to lose voters to the radical, emphatically xenophobic right – mainly organised in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National – is one calculation behind the timing of the law. But the deeper current the law reflects is the preservation of the uncompromising secularism of the Fifth Republic (1958 onwards) in the face of the visible diversification of the “global nation” on French soil.

In essence, the French political establishment is resisting a multicultural solution – one that would accept this form of society as a fact (even if its utility as the best way to integrate minorities is as yet unproven) and base public policy on tolerance of diversity.

The French elite insists rather in the principle that national identity is exclusively shaped by culture and can therefore be acquired in a learning and assimilation process. This universalistic – and, in an older reading, liberal – approach can be understood as the dominant trend in a historical development rich in political convulsions.

In this perspective, modern France is the inheritor of a state, a nation and a secular understanding forged in centuries of painful argument, and present across the many available “realms of memory” (in Pierre Nora’s famous concept). This argument began with the succession of Charlemagne as ruler of a unified Frankish kingdom in 771 and found its climax, but by no means its finale, in the revolution of 1789. It continues today. The “headscarf law” is French history.

A project unfulfilled

But if the processes of state-isation, nation-isation, and secular-isation have been underway for centuries, why are they still incomplete? Three immediate possible explanations suggest themselves.

First, alongside the secular, republican ethos central to France’s official self-perception is a country shaped by deeply conservative, Catholic values. It is true that Napoleon’s Concordat with Pope Pius VII (1801) effectively suborned the Catholic Church and obliged it to exert political control over its flock; and that a century later, the Third Republic (1871-1941) concluded two decades of intense social argument by decreeing the unconditional separation of church and state in 1905.

Even this rigorous laicité, however, did not eradicate other mentalities with a significant presence in French society; a fact illustrated by the huge, and successful, demonstrations in the early 1980s against government plans to abolish subsidies for the country’s – and mostly Catholic – private schools. This social current views widespread and often militant displays of Islamic allegiance as a hostile challenge.

A second explanation is that immigrants to France from the majority Muslim societies of the southern rim of the Mediterranean are particularly resistant to cultural assimilation by “Frenchness”. Their insistence on maintaining a series of religiously-motivated social practices and prohibitions – regarding pork meat in school canteens, gender-specific use of swimming pools – impacts on the majority population as dogmatic and exclusivist. It is answered by the latter’s exclusion, tinged often with racism and leading to the marginalisation of these immigrants and their descendants in alienated urban or suburban ghettos.

A third element in the incompleteness of the secularist project may be that the sheer number of Muslims in France has grown so rapidly in a relatively short period of time; inevitably, the cultural assimilation process had to fail because it had not been devised for such profusion. In particular, the family reunions permitted during Giscard d’Estaing’s presidency (1974-81) enabled many thousands of male immigrant workers from the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), whom France needed for its then booming economy, to bring their next of kin to France.

This trend, and the higher birthrate of Muslim immigrants, has made the Muslim minority in France the highest in the European Union at 3.26 million (5.5% of the population of mainland France), against 4.3% in the Netherlands, 3% in Germany, and 2.6% in Britain.

The social cost of secularism

In the face of these challenges, official France adamantly insists on the principle of equality between citizens, underpinned by a policy of cultural assimilation. By the same token, it rejects “affirmative action” – significantly labelled discrimination positive in France – as a means to accelerate the integration of minorities. Members of ethnic or religious minorities living in the country are not even registered in official statistics as long as they are French citizens.

The insistence on a secularist state policy can be interpreted partly as a cost-neutral exercise. Its proponents can also invoke the argument that if the slightest concession to Muslim demands would immediately risk arousing the desires of other religious groups, thus compromising both the secular principle and France’s cultural identity.

Many Muslims also see this as a danger; as many as 40% of French Muslims, and even larger numbers of women and younger people among them, may support the ban. Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), welcomed the law, arguing that it would successfully defend France’s secular institutions from the intrusion of Muslim fundamentalism.

But can these institutions, and the principles that underlie them, endure if the state refuses to acknowledge significant dimensions of its social landscape – unemployment and crime statistics that would be even more frightening if measured according to religious denomination? A pregnant remark of the architect of French socialism, Jean Jaurès, echoes across the decades: “A republic which is not social cannot be secular”.

This article was translated from German by Julian Kramer

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