The French ban of the veil

France is notorious these days for two things – getting up the nose of the Americans (from French fries to ‘freedom’ fries) and banning the veil in schools. The second of these is a ‘total social fact’, something that taps into the deepest and most contradictory currents of modern French history. As an anthropologist who lives in Paris, I am often asked to comment, but I find it hard to say what I think.

I spend so many hours locked away writing that I hardly have the time to get out. But, when I do, I don’t feel excluded from the life of the streets. Alienation from social experience is so much the norm in Paris that it is stripped of its bitterness, allowing the stranger to sample the array of cultural distractions at will, not least the charming banter of the shops in his quartier. The palpably public character of Parisian society means that one can be alone, but not lonely. Everyone belongs. There isn’t much incentive to join an expatriate clique, although many ethnics here, including the British, are extremely insular. And, even if I am not fluent enough to participate actively in public discourse, I draw immense satisfaction from living in a place where intellectuals are considered to be indispensable to civil society.

The day my last book arrived in the post, I couldn’t help mention it to the butcher. He is an artisan with no middle class pretensions, but he immediately asked me if I would be going on the Pivot show (Bouillon de Culture, a literary magazine on television, starring Bernard Pivot). I said I doubted it, since the book was in English. He added that it probably depended on knowing the right people. At this point, the lady behind me in the queue said that her son, the author, had been interviewed by Pivot. The whole shop then spent a few minutes discussing a TV programme that anywhere else than France would be considered the exclusive preserve of a tiny self-selected minority.

English-speakers often ask me about the law banning the veil. Their own distaste for the measure reflects an unthinking multi-cultural liberalism – the domestication of cultural relativism by the nation-state. The French republic has no room for such ideas. The law is universal or it is nothing. This particular law bans the wearing of conspicuous (ostensible) religious signs in schools. The obvious target is the wearing of the veil (hijab) by Muslim girls, but it applies also to the Christian crucifix, Jewish skull-cap and Sikh turban. The explicit aim is to preserve the secular character (laïcité) of the French public education system. But inevitably it has been seen by the large Muslim minority as an attack on their cultural values.

The French believe not only that they have the best culture in the world, but that the world ought to be French. They share the first conviction with the Chinese and the second with the Americans, which partly accounts for their clash over the Middle East. Paris was the centre of the world for all the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth. France offered the subjects of its colonial empire the opportunity to be French, which meant conforming to the republic’s laws and national customs. In the twentieth century, immigrants from North Africa were likewise expected to assimilate to French universalism. But of late the migrants have been asserting their religious difference in increasingly strident ways.

Thousands of Muslim women marched in the streets to protest the ban. The Catholic bishops and Orthodox Jews were just as vocal in their own way. But there is wide public support for this assertion of laïcité. At one level, two reactionary ideologies confront each other — an anachronistic imperialism and fundamentalist bigotry. But the French have not forgotten the ruinous legacy of their own religious wars and the reception of Muslims today has disturbing echoes of anti-semitism in the past. I haven’t yet been able to pin down the connection, but the Jews are without doubt a third party to this present dispute.

Twentieth century history is very much alive in the serious French media. You can find out here about how the train timetables were organized for the Holocaust, about life and death in the Gulag and even about how the British saved Europe by resisting the Nazis after France fell. Compared with the fictions and amnesia that mark my own country’s relationship to modern history, this political engagement with the living past is remarkable. There is still much to be explained and atoned for.

The French participated actively in the Holocaust through the Vichy regime, but were never held accountable since they were judged to be on the winning side. The colonial army’s atrocities in North Africa likewise escaped international sanction. The same people often took part in both and many found a political home with the French right who have dominated post-war governments. Maurice Papon, the Bordeaux chief of police under Vichy, was responsible for rounding up Jews for the concentration camps. He was later appointed Prefect of Police in Paris, where he commanded the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in 1961. Much later (2002) he was convicted of crimes against humanity.

The number of recorded anti-semitic acts, desecrations of cemeteries and such, increased tenfold after the millennium. Most of these were attributed to Muslim youths and the Minister of Education toured the Paris suburbs to advertise the government’s disquiet. But at the same time, the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the Socialist leader to the run-off against Chirac, giving rise to the ironic slogan votez l’escroc, pas le facho – vote for the crook, not the fascist. There is plenty of indigenous anti-semitism still around. France’s opposition to the USA is also widely seen as being pro-Arab and anti-Israel. Chirac was recently the first French president to visit Algeria since independence and this lined up the government unequivocally with the Muslim world.

More Jews settled in France from Germany and Eastern Europe after the war than anywhere else, mainly because of France’s secular laws and public culture. An even larger number of North African Jews took refuge there later. Now many Jews are leaving France for Israel because they think it is a hostile environment that explicitly caters to the same Muslims supposedly victimized by the new law.

I once read a magazine story about a communist deputy-mayor in the Paris suburbs whose parents were refugees after the war, while she had embraced the universalism of the left in 1968. Now her children wore star of David pendants to parties, associated only with Jews (referring to their schoolmates as ‘the French’) and talked about emigrating to Israel. It is hard to assess the balance between assimilationist and separatist tendencies among Muslims or Jews. But the latter get more publicity these days and that fuels the sort of public sentiments addressed by this law.

Let us not forget what is supposed to go on in schools. In my part of Paris, the attitude of the middle classes to education seems refreshingly straightforward. If you ask where they will send their kids, they say ‘just to the local public school’. Of course, many middle-class parents seek privilege for their children by sending them to private schools, but just as many lower-class parents go private for the sake of a good Catholic education that the public system denies them. There is little of the obsessive manipulation of money and place that feeds the educational neurosis of the American and British middle classes.

But if this had been about stopping Catholic girls from wearing a crucifix or Jewish boys a yamulka, I doubt if it could have stirred up such deep-seated feelings. These are just tokens of religious or ethnic identity and as such they harm no-one. What particular threat does the veil pose to Fren
ch secular society? It must have something to do with the symbolism of seclusion, of hiding women from the public gaze. For me, the women’s movement was the one solid legacy of the adolescent rebellion of the sixties. It is hard enough to accept a sharp demonstration of distance from a common life, but even more so when female emancipation itself appears to be the victim.

I am glad that my two-year-old daughter will go to school in France and so I half-heartedly endorse this measure. The religious minorities are convinced that it is wrong. My Anglo-American friends are too. But then they abandoned the aspiration for a viable public sphere long ago – and the French have not.







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Category: Europe