Leaked report revives divisive French debate about headscarves
Wearing of Islamic headscarves, yarmulkes and large crosses banned in public schools in 2004
Two Muslim school girls wearing headscarves and one wearing a wig wait in front of the Marcel Bloch high school in Bischeim, on the outskirts of Strasbourg, France, shortly after the 2004 headscarf ban. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images
An official report by France’s High Council for Integration (HCI), leaked to Le Monde, has revived the debate over signs of religious affiliation in French society.
The HCI, founded in 1989, falls under the ambit of the prime minister. Its report concludes that religious sectarianism is on the rise, and advocates banning Islamic headscarves in universities. These findings are contested by the head of the conference of university presidents, and by the successor organisation to the ‘mission’.
France already has two laws on veiling. The wearing of Islamic headscarves, yarmulkes and large crosses was banned in public schools in 2004. Offenders can be expelled. The law proposed by the HCI would extend this rule to institutions of higher learning.
In 2010, France banned face-covering veils in all public places, with a maximum fine of €150. When a policeman demanded that a Muslim woman in the town of Trappes show her face for an identity check last month, several nights of rioting ensued.
‘Principle of secularism’
Other measures advocated by the HCI include mandatory courses on “the principle of secularism” for future civil servants, hospital and healthcare personnel; and controls to prevent the use of student centres for religious purposes.
The report was somewhat discredited by the fact that it was mostly based on a nine-year-old study by the conference of university presidents. It complains of proselytising in some universities, of students and professors opposing mixed gender activities, and of believers who demand provisions for religious dietary restrictions on campus.
The report also singles out evangelical Christians who have criticised the teaching of Darwinism and texts by Voltaire, Pascal and Camus.
Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris mosque and the face of official Islam in France, said the report represents a “new stigmatisation” of Muslims. Abdallah Zekri, president of a group that combats Islamophobia, noted the council of state in 1996 deemed illegal a University of Lille ban on young women in headscarves.
President François Hollande told the Tunisian parliament last month that “France knows Islam and democracy are compatible.”
But France’s charter of diversity is contradicted by attempts to ban the wearing of religious symbols, sociologists Hicham Benaissa and Sylvain Crépon argued in Le Monde. It was inconsistent, they wrote, “to want to recruit someone because he is ‘other’, to make him into ‘same’.” North African immigrants used to be identified as “Magrébins” or Arabs, they noted; now they are called “Muslims”.
The debate extends to private sector workplaces. France’s highest court, the court of cassation, ruled in March that a creche employee had the right to wear a headscarf. The conservative UMP then proposed a law that would allow businesses to ban religious symbols at work.
According to a BVA poll published in March, 80 per cent of French people want all signs of religious belonging to be banned from public life, including from private enterprise.