For several months now France has been obsessed with an item of women’s clothing. The garment in question is not the skimpy lingerie modeled in a Paris Metro ad by a pubescent girl (paedophilie publicitaire, scolds the graffiti) but the Islamic hijab, increasingly in vogue among French Muslim women.
To Americans and Britons used to a more laissez-faire approach to multiculturalism, the French Parliament’s recent vote (by 494 to 36) to ban the wearing of "conspicuous" religious symbols in public schools may seem perverse. (The ban will apply to yarmulkes and large crucifixes as well as the hijab, but no one is taken in by this apparent evenhandedness.) Yet similar laws are being discussed in Belgium and the Netherlands; Germany’s highest court has ruled that states can ban teachers from wearing the hijab; and in Luton, near London, a 15-year-old Muslim girl is hiring lawyers because she can’t go to school in her jilbab, a long robe she feels expresses her spiritual commitment. Europe’s anxieties about immigration and a spreading Islamic revival have found a rich metaphor in this polymorphous piece of cloth, which can be read at once as a cover for inaccessible mysteries, an assertion of Islamic identity or an instrument of women’s oppression.
The French law is meant to protect the republican principle of laïcité, a strict form of secularism established after bitter struggles at the beginning of the last century to keep the Catholic Church out of politics. Nearly everyone agrees that laïcité must be preserved–including most of the far right, who take the Catholic jihadi Joan of Arc as figurehead for their anti-immigrant campaign. At a moment of perceived crisis, it is a powerful rallying cry. Exactly what the crisis is depends on whom you ask.
France’s Muslims, most of them children of its colonial adventures in North Africa, make up about 7 percent of the population; no government has challenged the racism that keeps so many of them in the wind-swept, highrise suburbs (the banlieues) on the margins of the cities. A second-generation Algerian is three to four times more likely to be unemployed than a "native" French person; schools in the banlieues are bleak and badly funded, experienced by teachers and students as the front line of confrontation. The rise of the far right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen is one consequence of this: President Jacques Chirac, who was re-elected in 2002 on the back of Le Pen’s success against the Socialists, is mindful both of his debt to his onetime ally and of the threat he represents. (Le Pen is cleverly against the hijab ban, on the grounds that it will help the immigrants blend in.) From the other side, French Muslims are beginning to demand political representation. There are no North African deputies in the French National Assembly and only seven on local and regional councils. A few days after the headscarf vote, a group of Maghrebis from Chirac’s own party threatened to quit politics because they are so underrepresented on the lists for March’s regional elections. Meanwhile, as in the rest of Europe, more Muslims are choosing to express their identity through an Islamic consciousness, religious or political or both. Teachers have complained about requests from Muslim girls to be excused from biology, PE or co-ed swimming; anger with Israel has morphed into anti-Semitism in the schoolyard and the street. And there’s an election coming, with Chirac’s close ally Alain Juppé convicted in a corruption scandal and his tough law-and-order interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, increasingly setting the agenda.