“A kind of aggression.” “A successor to the Berlin Wall.” “A lever in the long power struggle between democratic values and fundamentalism.” “An insult to education.” “A terrorist operation.” These descriptions–by former French President Jacques Chirac; economist Jacques Attali; and philosophers Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann–do not refer to the next great menace to human civilization but rather to the Muslim woman’s headscarf, which covers the hair and neck, or, as it is known in France, the foulard islamique.
In her keenly observed book The Politics of the Veil, historian Joan Wallach Scott examines the particular French obsession with the foulard, which culminated in March 2004 with the adoption of a law that made it illegal for students to display any “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation. The law further specified that the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and large crosses were not to be worn but that “medallions, small crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima, and small Korans” were permitted. Despite the multireligious contortions, it was very clear, of course, that the law was primarily aimed at Muslim schoolgirls.
The decade-long debate in France over the foulard was marked by three specific controversies. The first erupted in October 1989, when Ernest Chénière, the principal of a high school in Creil, north of Paris, expelled three students: Samira Saidani and Leila and Fatima Achaboun. The reason for the expulsion, Chénière claimed, was that he had to enforce laïcité, the French notion of secularism, in the school. The national debate that followed took place within the context of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the West’s confrontation with Iran, on the one hand, and the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Republic, on the other.
At the time that France’s attention was focused on three teenage girls with headscarves, the country had more than 3 million Muslims. French-Algerian novelist Leïla Sebbar, writing in Le Monde, qualified the controversy as “grotesque.” In the end, the Socialist Lionel Jospin, who at that time was minister of education, chose to let the courts decide the case. The Conseil d’État eventually ruled that students could not be refused admission simply for wearing headscarves, but it also gave teachers and principals the power to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether such signs of religious affiliation were permissible.
The second foulard controversy ignited in 1994 with the same Ernest Chénière. He was no longer a high school principal, having capitalized on his earlier fame and won a Parliament seat as a deputy for the center-right party Rassemblement pour la République, representing the department of Oise. In this new capacity, he sponsored a bill to ban all “ostentatious” signs of religious affiliations in schools. The same arguments were offered up as in 1989, but the political context this time was supplied by the civil war in Algeria. For Chénière and his large and diverse number of supporters, the fight against Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria and elsewhere mandated a strengthening of the secularist state at home.
The third and most recent foulard controversy occurred in 2003, when two teenage sisters, Alma and Lila Lévy, were expelled from their high school in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers for refusing to take off their headscarves. The Lévy sisters are the daughters of a lawyer who considers himself “a Jew without God” and a Kabyle teacher who had been baptized a Catholic during the Algerian war. The girls had converted to Islam after their parents’ separation and had donned the scarves as part of that process. In an interview with Le Monde, the girls’ father declared, “I am not in favor of the headscarf, but I defend the right of my children to go to school. In the course of this business I’ve discovered the hysterical madness of certain ayatollahs of secularism who have lost all their common sense.”