Accueil > Études de cas > Le voile et ce qu’il dévoile > A Conservative Revolution within Secularism

A Conservative Revolution within Secularism

The Ideological Premises and Social Effects of the March 15, 2004 Anti-Headscarf Law

par Pierre Tevanian
15 mars 2014

By banning the headscarf at school, french politicians celebrated a supposed re-affirmation of forgotten principles, claiming to have re-discovered the pertinence and relevance of Jules Ferry, Jean Jaurès, Léon Gambetta, and other monumental figures of the so called “Golden Age” of the Third Republic, now “threatened” once again by the specter of religious values. I intend to show that deep within its objective and ideological presuppositions, the anti-headscarf law breaks with these principles, and is actually part of a conservative revolution which can be summarized as : the transition from a secular to a religious conception of the secular ; the transition from libertarian to “securitarian” secularism [1] ; the transition from democratic to totalitarian logic ; and the transition from egalitarian to “identitarian” secularism [2].

For almost two years, the campaign against “the headscarf at school” provoked political and media hysteria comparable to the Dreyfus Affair [3]. Launched by the Right wing government in April 2003, and quickly endorsed by a large portion of the Left, even the extreme Left, this campaign resulted in the law of March 15, 2004, which prohibited “wearing conspicuous symbols of religious affiliation.” Although the so-called “Islamic headscarf” was worn at the time by only one to two thousand students, and although its presence has become increasingly accepted in the educational environment, numerous alarmist and aggressive speeches on prime time television turned veiled students into agents of “Islamic fundamentalism” [intégrisme islamique], “anti-intellectualism” [obscurantisme], or even “green fascism.” [4].

These speeches established an equivalence, usually implied but sometimes assumed, between the simple right to wear the headscarf and the obligation to wear it, as it is imposed in countries such as Iran. The headscarf was stigmatized as an attack on the principle of secularism [5], but also as the ultimate symbol of “the oppression of women,” and even as an instrument of that oppression. Veiled teenagers were often accused of making other women look like “sluts,” implying that they were complicit with the chauvinism and the rapes committed by their “brothers.”

Thus, the public debate quickly left the sphere of public education, evading attendant questions of social stigma, humiliation, and marginalization in the school system to become a vague, disembodied debate about the headscarf and Islamic fundamentalism. We will return to the social stigma of the headscarf, the adolescents who wear it, and their so-called “brothers,” who are suspected of forcing girls to wear the headscarf unless they manifest their secular allegiances by denouncing it. But before we return to this idea of stigmatization, let us first analyze the content of the March 15th, 2004 law, and its implications for secular discourse, freedom of expression, and the right to education.

The law, which was poorly received by the children of post-colonial immigrants when it was proposed to the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly), was often presented by its proponents (and sometimes by its detractors) as an expression of the eternal "French essence." [6] For some, it gave new life to the glorious exception française : a difficult concept for foreigners to grasp, yet considered a worthy lesson for the rest of the world [7]. For others, however, it encapsulates all the arrogance and intolerance of "French society."

In reality, the situation is more complex : although the law enjoyed a large consensus among political elites and the mainstream French media, a large portion of civil society opposed its putative exclusionism. At the beginning of the campaign, forty-five percent of French citizens were opposed to a ban on the headscarf at school (forty-nine percent supported it.) Better yet, only twenty-two percent supported the expulsion of a student who refused to remove her headscarf [8]. Beyond this, the anti-headscarf law has nothing to do with the essence of secular French culture. It actually breaks with legislation justified in the name of the secular.

Paradoxically, the rhetoric of a “return to roots” has actually been used to promote a new law, leading to a radical transformation of French secularism. By imposing "neutrality" not only on the agents of the public educational system, but on its users as well, the law transforms the founding laws of French secular politics (those of 1880, 1882, 1886, and 1905) [9]. From 2003-2004, there has been a conservative revolution within the context of French secular politics, meaning that a “new order” was supported by “conservative” or “reactionary” rhetoric idealizing the past.

By banning the headscarf at school, proponents of this rhetoric celebrate a supposed re-affirmation of forgotten principles, claiming to have re-discovered the pertinence and relevance of Jules Ferry, Jean Jaurès, Léon Gambetta, and other monumental figures of the so called “Golden Age” of the Third Republic, now “threatened” once again by the specter of religious values. I intend to show that deep within its objective and ideological presuppositions, the anti-headscarf law breaks with these principles, and is actually part of a conservative revolution which can be summarized as :

 the transition from a secular to a religious conception of the secular ;

 the transition from libertarian to “securitarian” secularism ;

 the transition from democratic to totalitarian logic ;

 the transition from egalitarian to “identitarian” secularism.

From Secular Secularism to Religious Secularism

The improbable slogan, “laïcité sacrée”, or sacred secularism, was featured on stickers and put up during a demonstration commemorating the centennial of the 1905 law. It demonstrates the transformation of secularism into a sacred symbol in public debates [10]. An organizing social principle, subject to democratic debate and perpetual critique and revision, has become a timeless value, open neither to criticism nor amendment, whose mere utterance can supposedly exorcise all social problems.

Thus, the alterity implied by the opposition between secular and religious values has become a mimetic rivalry exemplified by the phrase :

“When you go to a mosque, you must remove your shoes. Likewise, when a student goes to class, she must remove her headscarf.”

This is a form of syllogistic reasoning repeated throughout the headscarf controversy, adopted in the lurching Right wing political pandering of Nicolas Sarkozy, the current Minister of Interior and contender for the 2007 French presidency, as well as those on the Left and the extreme Left. The word “likewise” [de même] is problematic because it positions the school as a site of worship and locates secular values within the terms of political dogma. This form of dogma establishes an equivalence between secular and religious thinking that directly contradicts twentieth-century secular reason, which established another set of rules, in which sartorial interdictions were not a point of principle.

In other words : the example of wearing the headscarf in a public school and wearing shoes in the mosque cannot be conflated for the simple reason that the classroom is not a mosque ; the classroom is a secular rather than a religious space. As a secular space, the school establishes rules founded on pedagogical principles, allowing all that contributes and enhances the work of teachers and students. It only forbids that which function as an obstacle to its pedagogical imperatives.

A secular space is also a non-dogmatic space, open to discussions about the meaning of objects, phenomena, symbols, and articles of clothing. Only religious rituals assign unitary meanings to an article of clothing or a gesture, which may be considered acceptable or not to Church dogma. By declaring that a headscarf is a sign that necessarily demonstrates contempt for secular values, the State turns the secular school day into a religious ritual in which its officials become clergy who monitor the actions, gestures, and attire of its congregation [11].

This emerging "secular religion" has its new theologians. Media-savvy philosopher Henri Péna-Ruiz has developed an abstract and apologetic rhetoric to present secularism, recalling metaphysics or catechism rather than law, political science, or sociology. The equally visible media intellectuals Régis Debray, Max Gallo, and Alain Finkielkraut, acknowledge and defend the religious dimension that the March 15, 2004 law imposes on public education. These figures, belonging the spectrum of the French Socialist Left, claim that the loss of “transcendence” is the greatest threat to the social fabric, hoping that the second coming of the secular school will reestablish it as a “sacred space.” [12].

However, the public school system as it was conceived and implemented following the laws of 1880-1886 and 1905, is neither transcendent nor sacred. It requires the secular spirit of its teachers and curriculum, assigning precious little significance to religious symbols worn by students [13]. It abstains from using religious precepts to interpret the significance of these symbols. The primary concern of such a school is to accommodate all students, whereas the law of March 15, 2004 presents the veiled student with an impossible dilemma : to remove her headscarf or to leave school permanently. After one year of enforcement, there have been hundreds of such cases resulting in the expulsion of veiled students [14].

The original secularism is radically different from this “religious secularism.” Secularism as defined by the 1905 law and the legislation of the 1880s is a means rather than an end. In other words, it is not a dogma or an eternal value, but rather a means for a variety of opinions and beliefs to coexist while maximizing liberty and equality. However, current French discourse ignores these goals and treats secularism as an end in itself. Secularism today is frighteningly similar to religious doctrine.

From Libertarian Secularism to Securitarian Secularism

Secularism, as defined by the laws of the 1880s, is libertarian in the sense that the “neutrality” imposed on the enterprise of public education through its physical plant, personnel, and curricula is articulated in terms of liberty and equality. Its ultimate goal is to guarantee maximum individual liberty to all equally, ensuring that the liberty of the majority does not stifle that of the minority. In the French context, the term libertarian refers to the equal liberty of all, whereas the term liberal can be reserved for a more abstract valuation of individual liberty, blind to power hierarchies that increase the liberty of some and decrease that of others.

The principle of equal liberty for all is at the heart of “neutral” public education. Although absolute neutrality is impossible for individual teachers, relative neutrality can be achieved by limiting the expression of personal convictions. Neutral education allows students to develop and think independently. Indeed, the teacher’s opinions must be suppressed and “neutralized” so that their influence does not stifle the student’s developing conscience. Likewise, scholastic curricula must not contain official ideology or religion. On the contrary, they must encourage the student to make spiritual, moral, aesthetic, and political choices based on the diversity and difference of human culture in its entirety [15].

Freedom of conscience is the foundation of both neutral public education and students’ freedom of expression. Very few limits are imposed on this freedom ; slander, defamation, and (since 1972) incitement to racial hatred are prohibited, and certain pedagogical limits (such as the obligation to discuss the subject at hand and to wait one’s turn to speak) are imposed. Because a free conscience requires that students form and discuss their own opinions, the founders of the secular school system imposed no other limits. Indeed, the laws of 1880-1886 remain silent on the subject of the students’ “neutrality,” permitting them to express their religious and political convictions [16]. This principle of free speech even includes the right to express absurdities or prejudices, which must be articulated before they can be fought.

The 2004 law marks a radical transformation of the concept of “libertarian secularism.” By forcing neutrality on students, it questions the very foundations of secular education. Even if the law only concerns students’ attire, it implies that Muslim students in particular must be discreet, “reserved,” and ultimately silent. The “debate” that preceded and provoked the adoption of this law was punctuated by incessant appeals to practice religion only in the “private sphere,” relegating religion to the “home.”

Thus, the State implies not only that certain forms of expression are forbidden to Muslim students, but also that as students, they have no right to express their point of view on the subject. The 2004 law goes so far as to stifle any possibility for further debate. Furthermore, the State inflicts extraordinary violence by expelling girls who refuse to remove their headscarves. The State relegates these students to the status of sub-humans who are “unfit for liberty,” and incapable of benefiting from the “lessons of emancipation” provided by the school.

Securitarian secularism replaces libertarian secularism as “law and order” take the place of liberty and equality in the pantheon of French values. The new law’s supporters argue that visible religious symbols must disappear from institutions caught in a “war of religion” in order to restore peace. Thus, if the law of 2004 has any historical precedent, it is neither the law of 1880 nor that of 1905, but that of 1936, in which Jean Zay’s Ministry of Education temporarily prohibited students’ political expression in reaction to violent confrontations between extreme Right wing leagues and militant communists within high schools. However, this law only suspended public liberties because public order was at risk in an exceptional circumstance. It did not tamper with the foundations of French secularism. Crucially, some proponents of the 2004 law invoked the 1936 law rather than the mythical “founding texts of secularism,” making the deceptive claim that Jewish-Muslim relations in 2004 were causing disturbances similar to those of 1936 [17].

From Democratic to Totalitarian Logic

The slogan, “Republic versus democracy,” first asserted by the essayist Régis Debray in 1989, following his first public involvement with the headscarf controversy, must be further examined. Nothing less than democratic logic has been called into question by the “republican secularism” of the past few years, especially in light of the current discourse employed by proponents of the anti-headscarf law on the necessity for “neutrality in public space.”

The idea of “neutral public space” can be understood in several different ways : if we disregard the thorny question of what is and is not public, there remain two radically different, even antithetical, ways to define this “space” and its “neutrality.”

According to the first definition, “neutrality” means that everyone has the same right to expression, applied with neither privileges nor discrimination, and monitored by the authorities. Stated more directly, “neutrality” lies in the fact that no majority or dominant social force may monopolize speech or the use of public space, and that nothing prevents minorities from expressing themselves. Accordingly, the public space must be neutral, not the public itself. One might even say that the public space must be neutral precisely so that the public does not have to be. A woman may then wear her headscarf without calling into question “the neutrality of public space.” On the contrary, the neutrality of public space guarantees a woman’s right to choose whether or not to wear a headscarf. Government policies or social conventions that require conformity to a single norm —such as going without a headscarf—threaten the neutrality of public space.

The other definition, prominent throughout the “debate over the headscarf,” imposes neutrality on the public itself. In this case, the Muslim woman who stands out by wearing a headscarf is essentially attacking the “neutrality of public space.” This conception of “neutral public space,” while internally coherent, implies nothing less than a total suppression of free speech. When individuals are obliged to “remain neutral,” public space becomes totalitarian space.

Although this totalitarian logic is delusional, or at least unacceptable to anyone who values democracy, it has spread far beyond extremist circles where it properly belongs. Its expression within mainstream media and politics has undoubtedly inspired the many acts of incivility and violence committed with impunity against veiled women in universities, banks, municipal buildings, police stations, and public transportation.

Because it is common knowledge that only veiled women, and not members of the general public, are expected to be “neutral,” no one contests the conflation of the neutrality of public space with the neutrality of the public, and no one expresses concern over the advancing totalitarian tide infiltrating French thought and politics. Since the beginning of the headscarf controversy, the right to public expression of opinion has never actually been called into question, and everyone involved in the debate understands that only the public space, rather than the public itself, must be neutral, except for the practicing Muslim public.

In other words : exclusionism is only totalitarian with respect to the minority ; the majority’s democratic rights are Left untouched. In other words, the majority may enjoy "neutral public space" without being “neutral” itself, whereas the minority must become “neutral,” i.e. invisible and silent, as soon as it enters the public space [18]. Democracy and totalitarianism are no longer two types of regimes or societies diametrically opposed to each other ; they now coexist within one society that is totalitarian for Muslims and democratic for the rest.

From Egalitarian Secularism to Identitarian Secularism

As curious as it may sound to a political scientist, this form of exclusionary politics is not at all exceptional to those who have studied or endured racism, sexism, or homophobia. When systematically applied, these forms of discrimination deny one segment of society the democratic rights accorded to the other. For example, many homosexuals are familiar with the underlying message for Muslims :

“you may do what you like in the ‘private sphere’ but in public, be ‘neutral’ and inconspicuous.”

In both cases, the same false “respect” and “generosity” mask discrimination, invisibility, and submission to a totalitarian order from which the majority is spared. No one asks heterosexuals to hide their heterosexuality, nor does one ask Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Communists, Socialists, Neo-Liberals, or Centrists to “remain neutral” or to keep their opinions at home [19].

The unequal treatment and double standards imposed by the new law have led many French citizens to term it racist. Having said that, I am not accusing everyone who approves of the law to be driven by hatred of Arabs or Muslims. On the other hand, the misconstrued notion of the “neutrality of public and scholastic space” which has served as the basis of the anti-headscarf campaign begs the question of racism. If racism can be defined as a system of thought and discriminatory practice founded on “race,” “origin,” “ethnicity,” or “culture,” then the anti-headscarf law is indisputably racist, because it establishes a glaring inequality. By banning the headscarf in the classroom, it directs violence against Sikhs and veiled Muslims, but casts a blind eye towards Christians who wear a cross under their sweaters.

Such discrimination is not the result of chance ; the law was created with this result in mind [20] :

 indisputably, most arguments in favor of the law only concern the headscarf, even if they supposedly ban “all religious symbols.” (This contradiction is most apparent in the anti-headscarf petition launched in May 2003 by the Union des Familles Laïques, [Union of Secular Families (UFAL)] and in another petition published in December 2003 by Elle magazine) [21] ;

 on December 17, 2003, Jacques Chirac asked Parliament to create legislation specifically targeting the headscarf.

In spite of the good intentions of the progressive, even anti-racist, activists who supported the law in the name of feminism or secularism, the 2004 law is an example of racist exlusionism [22]. Only racism can explain the collective hysteria and numerous contradictions characterizing the debate. When intelligent people suddenly become foolish, when kind, mild-mannered people suddenly become mean, when feminists call other women “sluts” (for participating in a feminist demonstration while veiled) [23], when defenders of liberty become authoritarian (by allowing the State to regulate students’ attire and turn “inappropriate dress” into a matter of discipline), no term is more appropriate than “collective phobia.”

And how can we explain the indifference that met the expulsion of hundreds of mostly working-class students in a society so concerned with children and their education without taking into account deep-seated Islamo-phobia ?

Although the debate has yet to be fully theorized, we can certainly say that it was riddled with racist arguments that reduce Islam to a series of amalgams : voile-viol-excision-islamisme-intégrisme-terrorisme-fascisme-nazisme-antisémitisme (headscarf-rape-excision-Islamic fundamentalism-terrorism-fascism-Nazism-anti-Semitism.) [24]. Two examples in particular are worth further examination. The remarks of the Socialist Senator Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the philosopher Henri Péna-Ruiz are emblematic of the remarkable racist and exclusionary politics exposed within the heart of the French Left.

Two Examples

During the December 12, 2005 episode of the TV program "Mots croisés” (“Crossword Puzzle”), Mélenchon praised the March 15, 2004 law as the logical result of secular French values. In conciliatory tones, he gave an abstract description of secularism as a “universal” principle that permits “everyone to live together” while respecting individual convictions. Two guests (Christine Boutin and Amar Lasfar) pointed out the contradiction inherent in assigning a single, derogatory meaning to the headscarf without taking into account the opinions of the girls who wear it [25]. They also remarked that the anti-headscarf campaign effectively stigmatized an entire segment of the French population on the basis of prejudice and phobia, and that the law’s effect was to expel many students who wished to remain enrolled in the secular school system. These objections seemed to incessantly annoy the Senator ; instead of engaging his opponents in a debate about these issues, he quickly ended the discussion with the exhortation :

“Listen ! Our way of life, as French citizens, does not include wearing headscarfs at school !”

The Senator’s reaction is characteristic of the inability of French political elites to accept dialogue, i.e., the exchange of arguments between equals, especially when the subject of debate or the opponent has anything to do with “immigration,” “the Arab world,” or “Islam.” This instance is deeply emblematic of the contradictions within the sacred “republican” discourse of the French ruling classes. Despite a veneer of “generosity,” this discourse quickly becomes violent invective, stigmatizing immigrants and their children who demand that universalist, libertarian, and egalitarian principles materialize into lived social conditions. When confronted with reality, the French political system passes with surprising ease from abstract universalism to narrow-minded and aggressive supremacism whenever the “French way of life” is challenged, particularly as a founding principle in the arbitration of student conduct.

Péna-Ruiz, one of the most passionate supporters of the 2004 law, advocated the passage from secular egalitarianism (founded on the principle of equality) to a secular form of exclusionary identity politics. During a 2004 public debate at the Montreuil City Hall, Péna-Ruiz declared :

“As a teacher, I prefer not to know whether my students are Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, or anything else, because I must treat them all as equals.”  [26]

Interestingly, Péna-Ruiz does not denigrate egalitarianism, unlike other reactionary and “identitarian” pundits such as Alain de Benoist, the theorist of the “New Right,” or the neo-conservative polemicist Alain Finkielkraut [27]. On the contrary, he reveres it as an ultimate goal. Inversely, Péna-Ruiz does not defend the exclusionism implied by forbidding the headscarf ; rather, he denies that implication. The essence of his position is the opposition between the majesty of “Universalism” and the shadows of “particularism,” “communitarianism,” or even “exclusionary” identity formations. In contrast to the polemics of the extreme Right, “neo-conservatives,” or “Right wing republicans,” this speech is clearly not oriented towards the celebration of identity politics. Péna-Ruiz’s position typifies “Left-wing republicanism,” which disguises majoritarian particularism as the “Universal,” and identity politics as egalitarian discourse.

Péna-Ruiz confuses equality with identity, thus demonstrating a total misunderstanding of egalitarian logic and its implications for the question of cultural difference [28]. How does the recognition of difference (for example, knowing whether someone is Jewish, Muslim, religious, non-religious) prevent equal treatment ? “Different” is the opposite of “identical” rather than “equal,” and "equal" is the opposite of “unequal,” rather than “different.” By confusing the question of “equality/inequality” with that of “identity/difference,” Péna-Ruiz makes identity a condition of equality. He believes that difference necessarily translates into inequality.

As a secondary school teacher, I can verify that the headscarf does not prevent me from treating my students equally. If we are unable to treat two people equally because of their difference, the problem is not with what a student wears on her head, but rather what is within ours, and this is a defining characteristic of racism.

An Affair of Consequence

Consistent media coverage of the headscarf controversy has only reinforced the climate of anti-Muslim racism in France that developed in the wake of September 11th, 2001. Whether the debate focuses on "insecurity," "exclusionism," "secularism," "fundamentalism," "the condition of women in the slums," or "the new Judeophobia,” the Arab Muslim boy functions as the stereotyped scapegoat [29].

On one hand the "battle of the headscarf" is the French equivalent of the American “clash of civilizations,” while also referring to a specifically French tradition predating the 9/11 attacks. It is the latest episode in the conflicted relationship between the cultural and religious majority in relation to post-colonial immigrants and their children. From this point of view, the 2003-2004 campaign was reminiscent of the 1958 "battle of the headscarf," in which women in Algiers were forcibly unveiled to prove the “emancipating genius” of colonial France [30].

Placed within its proper political, economic, and social context, the headscarf controversy continues the social war conducted by the "social-liberal" Right and Left against the working class. Like the national obsession with "illegal immigration" from 1993-1998 and the "insecurity" of 2001 and 2002, the headscarf controversy was actually a new occasion to deflect questions of unemployment, insecurity, and discrimination by imposing an ethnic and cultural rather than a socio-economic or political explanation of the situation. As Saïd Bouamama emphasized :

"one modality of social combat questions the border that separates opposing camps. Neo-liberalism certainly has an interest in downplaying social equality, which is why cultural, ethnic, religious, and national identity have played such an important role in the debate. The right to free education is one of the social inheritances questioned by neo-liberalism. The process of challenging the neo-liberal social vision has only begun, and the government is already being questioned by educators. Given this fact, it is not surprising that the school has become the battlefield for the combat against the "the new enemy : the "headscarf" and the "communitarianism" it supposedly represents. The term "secular" is mobilized to mask the reality of social disparities, to reunite what neoliberalism divides, and to divide what it unites." [31]

One of the most marked effects of "the year of the headscarf" has truly been to reunite what neo-liberalism divides. In fact, when the Raffarin government (which belongs to the Right wing Union for a Popular Movement [UMP]) [32] attacked social gains (notably retirement and unemployment benefits) and public education, who would have guessed that Arlette Laguiller, spokeswoman for Lutte Ouvrière (the Trotskyite Workers’ Struggle Party) would support the Government’s position along with the Socialist Malek Boutih and Raffarin’s fellow UMP member in charge of prison construction, Nicole Guedj ? Nevertheless, on March 8, 2004, during "Women’s Day," under the auspices of Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Prostitutes Nor Bullied) [33], a "sacred union" of the neo-liberal Right, the social-democratic Left, and the working-class extreme Left came together in the "battle of the headscarf."

On the basis of common hostility to the headscarf and belief in the political virtues of disciplinary measures, the "secular" Left formed an alliance with the clerical Right, pro-Palestinian activists with stalwart supporters of Israel, feminists with chauvinists, and, following a long strike, teachers joined with the Minister who served as their erstwhile antagonist.

The breakup of old alliances is apparent in the ranks of many political, labor, and other organizations. Although there were a few dissenting voices within the Right wing [34], only the Left was truly divided by the debate over the headscarf :

 ironically, although the Right wing government launched the "affair" for its own profit, only the Left was active in the pro- and anti-headscarf campaigns (socialist Senators and members of Assemblée Nationale were the first to announce their intention to file a proposition banning the headscarf at school) ;

 National policymakers for Lutte Ouvrière and the Communist Revolutionary League fed the media machine at the beginning of the 2003 school year by starting the "Affair of Aubervilliers" [35] ;

 however, the members of Parliament most vehemently opposed to the law also came from the Left.

Indeed, polls indicated a split between two approximately equal “camps” among Leftists [36].

The Unveiling of the Left

Despite media claims to the contrary, the headscarf controversy is not a subject of political debate "across the board," nor does it "blur the division between Right and Left.” In reality, the Left’s own identity and unity were blurred. On the Right, politicians and voters alike were unanimously anti-headscarf. This division within the Left limited any sizable mobilization against the government’s initiatives in 2003 and 2004, with little hope for change. The Left is divided by several fundamental questions :

 Do bans and prohibitions contribute to or inhibit education ?

 Can a woman be “emancipated” against her will ?

 Can the Other be “enlightened” by “our” morals ? Does the “end” of secularism justify the “means” of forcibly unveiling women ?

 Most importantly, how can French Leftists from the cultural majority relate to working-class, immigrant, and Muslim populations ?

Although the problem of "the headscarf at school" is a political and media construct, it inadvertently invoked these relevant questions. The headscarf controversy veiled real problems like the dismantling of public services and the welfare state, along with structural unemployment and economic instability. But it unveiled the post-colonial racism that has taken root in France. Although its existence is often denied, this racism is found among all social classes and political stripes, including self-described "progressive" or "revolutionary" movements [37].

This unveiling of the Left has many consequences. By not opposing the media campaign against "veiled" students, and by sometimes actively participating in it, the leaders of Leftist organizations — in particular the Socialist Party, Workers’ Struggle, and the Communist Revolutionary League—showed the great social distance separating them from certain populations, their inability to understand these populations, their penchant for authoritarianism, their intermittent intolerance, and even their racism. These leaders have permanently alienated a large part of their potential "base."

Twenty years after it essentially ignored the beur movement of the 1980s, the mainstream French Left has catastrophically missed another opportunity [38]. Significantly, the twentieth anniversary of the December 1983 March for Equality, which was the first time post-colonial French citizens from immigrant backgrounds demanded entry into the national discussion, was commemorated only by a presidential speech banning the headscarf - a repressive measure, aimed principally at the marchers’ children, and veiling the issue of social equality with a false "problem of cultural differences."

The law of the headscarf is thus a Freudian symptom : it is a pathological manifestation of the “return of the repressed” evoking a past that never goes away. It is also significant that the headscarf’s visibility is at the heart of the "problem ;" when veiled women and adolescents affirm themselves as equals by appearing in schools, universities, and businesses, the headscarf becomes unbearable. Headscarves worn by mothers at home never provoked such furor [39].

A Collective Humiliation

In conclusion, we must not lose sight of the most direct victims of the "great debate." Among them are the forty-five teenagers who were confronted by disciplinary councils and expelled from school. In addition, three Sikh boys were expelled in Bobigny for wearing turbans, and sixty or so "veiled" students "chose," according to the euphemistic terms of the Minister of National Education, to resign from school in order to attend private schools or take correspondence classes.

There are also those, impossible to count, who "expelled themselves," by not returning to school in September 2004 to avoid the ordeal of being summoned before a disciplinary council. We can, however, guess their number to be at least two hundred, if not more [40].

We also must not ignore the torment endured by those girls who removed their headscarfs to stay in school. We must ask whether the republican values of "secularism," "liberty," "equality," and "fraternity," were served as these girls were forced to surrender to a litany of threats, insults, and humiliations.

Finally, the "media debate" of the past few years and its concrete consequences have inflicted a great collective wound on tens of thousands of people : the hundreds of students expelled or compelled to remove their headscarves, their families, and the entire population of post-colonial immigrants and their descendents, who are reminded of the forcible unveilings of colonial days.

This wound has been nursed in silence and invisibility. French politicians can rejoice that until now, it has not been particularly "visible." School superintendents can congratulate themselves on the "educational character" of the disciplinary councils [41], and the mainstream media can continue to perpetuate the belief that everything is for the best in the name of secularism. Nonetheless, the French State, its politicians and media will eventually have to reckon with the suffering of those who endured aggression, discrimination, and expulsion as a result of the "anti-headscarf" hysteria [42] and the March 15, 2004 law.


This paper is translated from french to english by Naomi Baldinger, and taken from Charles Tshimanga (Editor), Ch. Didier Gondola (Editor), Peter J. Bloom (Editor), Frenchness and the African Diaspora : Identity and Uprising in Contemporary France, Indiana University Press, 2009.


[1“Securitarian” refers to the idea of the security state. The question of “security,” is particularly oriented to the issue of criminality. It is a leitmotiv of European liberal social-democracies since the early 1990s. Securitarian discourses are based on exclusionary notions of “national integrity” and “the social body.” This matter is highly racialised (the young man of migrant descent as ’the’ criminal) and gendered (white women, the old woman as ’the’ victim… and children, of course conflated with women). From

[2“Identitarian” refers to a narrow form of identity politics that borders on a “reaction formation” that denies the right of the “other” on the basis of an essential difference. There is no direct translation of the concept of “laïcité identitaire” in the original French text so I use the term “identitarian” to reflect the orienting perspective of Tevanian argument.

[3See E. Terray, "Une hystérie politique," and Bouteldja, H., Grupper, C., Levy, L., and Tevanian, Pierre, "Une nouvelle affaire Dreyfus," in Nordmann, Ch., ed. Le Foulard islamique en questions, Editions Amsterdam, 2004.

[4The number of headscarf-related disputes, according to the French Ministry of Education, fell from 300 in 1994 to 150 in 2003. 146 of these incidents were quickly resolved through compromise. See P. Tevanian, Le voile médiatique. Un faux débat : "l’affaire du foulard islamique. Raisons d’Agir, 2005.

[5“Secularism,” or “le discours laïque,“ refers to the bulwark of the French Republic and maintains ideals of national identity associated with secular humanism. The notion of “secular humanism” in the US has been so compromised by the religious Right over the past thirty years such that the notion of the secular is a severely weakened entity in contemporary American politics.

[6Several corroborating enquiries show that more than two thirds (between sixty-six percent and sixty-nine percent) of immigrants’ children and/or Muslim youths (18-25 years old) opposed the March 15, 2004 law. This hostility was even more marked among girls than boys. See P. Tevanian, op. cit.

[7The term l’exception française originally conveyed the belief that the demand for human rights and social welfare was unique in its insight and place in French national culture. Yet the term has since given way to contentious notions of cultural purity, resistance to the perceived effacement of French culture and criticism of supposedly “foreign” intrusions within that culture. From

[8See P. Tevanian, Op. cit

[9The Jules Ferry laws of 1880 and 1882 established free, mandatory, and secular education. The law of 1886 required that teachers in public schools not be members of the clergy, and the law of 1905 legally separated church and state, stating that "the Republic neither recognizes, salaries, nor subsidizes any religion".

[10This slogan echoes Jacques Chirac’s declaration that "we must not meddle with the pillars of the temple" when asked whether the 1905 law separating church and state had been called into question.

[11This “mosque” argument is problematic for two reasons. First, it neglects the important difference between secular and religious space. It also equivocates the relative violence experienced by the tourist who removes his shoes with the far greater violence experienced by a veiled teenage girl who uncovers her head to enter the classroom. This argument compares the tourist’s voluntary visit to a mosque with a girl’s right to education, which is especially shocking because lack of education in French society means an assured drop in social status, especially for working-class girls, who make up the majority of veiled students.

[12See A. Finkielkraut, "Le foulard et l’espace sacré del l’Ecole," as well as Dominique Liebman’s analysis, "Finkielkraut se dévoile !"

[13Indifference to students’ attire has not always been the rule. It developed during the twentieth century when students were harrassed, threatened, and even sent home because of their attire. However, such harassment has no legal basis, nor is it related to “secularism.” Rather, it was based on arbitrary criteria : girls were expelled for wearing pants, and boys were expelled for long hair. Although such authoritarianism was supposedly put to rest by the student movements of May 1968 and the 1970s, the current debate suggests that it is alive and well.

[14For statistics on expulsions and students’ perspective on the new law, see Collectif Une école pour tou-te-s, "Eléments d’un future livre noir."

[15Of course, this principle is more fictional than real. Until the 1960s, history lessons oriented towards nationalist, Franco-centrist, and colonialist ideology. Even today, curricula are full of official mythology that downplays the role of women and the working class. See S. Citron, Le Mythe national. L’histoire de France en question. Paris : Editions Ouvrières, 1987.

[16This silence is actually mandated by an elementary principle of law.

[17On the exaggerated and socially constructed nature of the current debate, see in particular F. Kaoues, "Quand les medias attisent la haine," See also "Quand la loi du marché s’impose l’école. De la segregation sociale à la calomnie médiatique,"

[18Veiled women, "visible" Muslims, practicing Muslims, "supposed Muslims," or just plain Muslims.

[19This is also not the case for students wearing Ché Guevara t-shirts, Palestinian scarves, political buttons or pins, or red ribbons symbolizing the fight against AIDS.

[20The law’s goal was to expel veiled students. Sikhs are the "collateral victims" of a law that was not originally aimed at them.

[21In addition, the delegates at a September 2003 UFAL meeting decided that for “tactical reasons” the organization must petition for a ban on all religious symbols : “neither headscarf, cross, nor kippah.”

[22On the contradictions inherent in so-called “feminist” arguments against the veil, see Nouvelles Questions Féministes, vol. 25, no. 1, 2006, “Sexisme et racisme,” and Nacira Guénif-Soulimas and E. Macé, Les féministes et le garçon arabe. Editions de l’Aube, 2004. And see (at the texts by Christine Delphy, Femmes Publiques, Caroline Damiens, Houria Bouteldja, and Monique Crinon. Although it is certainly paradoxical that anti-racist activists would support an objectively racist law, it does not mean that these activists are racist themselves. Rather, it reminds us that no one is free of prejudice, especially in a society fraught with structural racism.

[23See Djamila Béchoua’s testimony, “Et toi, pourquoi tu le portes pas, le foulard ?” at

[24See P. Tevanian, op. cit. for commentary on these themes.

[25Christine Boutin is a member of Parliament from the Right wing UMP. Amir Lasfar is Rector and Imam of the Lille Mosque, as well as principal of Averroés, a private Muslim school.

[26This argument was often repeated by other supporters of the anti-headscarf law.

[27See J. Rancière, La haine de la démocratie, Editions La Fabrique, 2005 for commentary on overtly anti-egalitarian speeches.

[28As the philosopher Michèle Le Doeuff remarked, even a child can understand that regardless of the difference between feathers and lead, a kilogram of feathers weighs as much as a kilogram of lead. See M. Le Doeuff , Le sexe du savoir, Aubier, 1999.

[29On the theme of "the new Judeophobia," see Collectif, Antisémitisme : l’intolérable chantage, La découverte, 2003. On the media treatment of the "condition of women in the slums," see L. Mucchielli, Le scandale des "tournantes." Dérives médiatiques, contre-enquête sociologique. La découverte, 2005 as well as N. Guénif-Soulimas and E. Macé, Les féministes et le garçon arabe, op. cit. 2004. On the theme of "communitarianism," see S. Tissot, "Le repli communautaire : un concept policier."

[30See T. Shepard, "La bataille du voile pendant la guerre d’Algérie," in Ch. Nordmann, ed., Le foulard islamique en questions. Editions Amsterdam, 2004. See also F. Fanon, "L’Algérie se dévoile," in L’an V de la revolution algérienne. La Découverte, 2001.

[31S. Bouamama, "Ethnicisation et construction idéologique d’un bouc émissaire." In Ch. Nordmann, ed., Le foulard islamique en questions. Editions Amsterdam, 2004.

[32The UMP is France’s mainstream conservative party, headed by current President Jacques Chirac. Jean-Pierre Raffarin served as Prime Minister from May 6, 2002 to May 31, 2005. Raffarin, one of France’s most unpopular Prime Ministers since 1958, was one of the anti-headscarf law’s earliest supporters. In 2004, he established a committee to begin drafting the law.

[33This movement was founded by members of the Socialist Party to fight the oppression of young women from working-class neighborhoods. Although it lacks a real social base in these neighborhoods, it is a political darling on both ends of the spectrum. The movement is often attacked by immigrants, who have accused it of “ethnicizing” the issue of sexism, and contributing to the stigmatization of "Arab boys" and veiled Muslim girls.

[34On the Right, opposition to the law was restricted to lip service. No Right wing personality demonstrated against the law between December 2003 and March 2004. Members of the UDF (center-Right) merely abstained from voting on the law instead of opposing it. The rare dissenting voices on the Right fell into three categories : "neo-liberals" like Guy Sorman and Alain Madelin along with "centrists" like Jean-Christophe Lagarde who called the law an attack on freedom of conscience and the Muslim community. "Clerics" like Christine Boutin deplored an attack on all religions, and finally, the extreme Right wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen called the law a "smokescreen" designed to divert opinion from "the problem of immigration."

[35At the beginning of the 2003 school year, teachers at Aubervilliers High School led a campaign that ended in the very publicized expulsion of two veiled students, Alma and Lila Lévy. See the complete account of the "affair" by Laurent Lévy on

[36Prohibitionist activists fall into six categories :

(a) the Socialist Party and its satellites (essentially SOS Racisme and Ni Putes Ni Soumises),

(b) the "national-republican" movement, united by UFAL (Union of Secular Families),

(c) a small contingent of anti-clerical North African immigrants,

(d) several movements on the extreme Left (the Worker’s Party and Lutte Ouvrière),

(e) a few feminist groups (Prochoice, the Women’s Rights League, and SOS Sexisme),

(f) members of “divided” organizations on the Left, such as ATTAC ("anti-neo-liberal" Left,) the Communist Party and the trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League, and unionized teachers from the SGEN-CFDT (General National Educational Syndicate) and the FSU (Unified Federal Syndicate).

The anti-prohibitionist camp, united since December 2003 around the Collective Une école pour tou-te-s/Contre les lois d’exclusion (School for All/Against the Laws of Expulsion,) brought together individuals from the entire range of Leftist groups : environmentalists, communists (predominantly the Communist Revolutionary Youth and members of the LCR, or Revolutionary Communist League,) labor unionists (predominantly CGT, or General Confederation of Labor, and SUD) and many others (CEDETIM, the Léo Lagrange Federation, the Mouvement Against Racism and For the Friendship of Peoples,) immigrants and their descendents (Association of Maghrebi Workers in France, Federation of Tunisians Citizens of the Two Banks, Immigrants’ and Suburbs’ Movements,) and feminists (Public Women, Pluralist Women, Les Sciences Potiches Se Rebellent, the Blédardes, Feminist Collective for Equality.) The Collective Une école pour tou-te-s provoked much controversy because it contained two organizations associated with the Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan : the Muslim Collective of France and Muslim Participation and Spirituality.

[37On this point, see S. Bouamama, L’affaire du voile. La production d’un racisme respectable. Editions du Geai Bleu, 2004 ; P. Tevanian, "De la laïcité égalitaire à la laïcité sécuritaire : le milieu scolaire à l’épreuve du foulard islamique," in L. Bonelli, G. Sainati, eds., La machine à punir. Discours et pratiques sécuritaires. L’Esprit Frappeur, 2004 (also See also O. Masclet, La gauche et les cites. Enquête sur un rendez-vous manqué. La dispute, 2002.

[38The term beur was coined by French working-class youth of Arab descent to designate themselves. It is a double inversion of the word arabe : rebeu becomes beu-reu and is then abbreviated to beur. Once the term was popularized in the media, it was abandoned by those who coined it. On the term, its critique, and its abandonment, see S. Bouamama, Dix ans de Marche des Beurs, Desclée de Brouwer, 1994.

[39See P. Tevanian, "Le corps d’exception et ses metamorphoses."

[40For statistics concerning the law’s effect on students, see Collectif Une école pour tout-te-s, "Eléments d’un future livre noir."

[41The Inspector of Schools defended the disciplinary councils’ “educational” character after expelling a fourteen-year-old junior high-school student in Mâcon (Reuters, 10/22/2004.)

[42For example : a veiled woman turned away from a voting booth, veiled mothers forbidden from accompanying school outings, veiled women denied participation in the "great debate over school," a mayor refusing officiate in a marriage ceremony involving a veiled woman, along with many desecrations of Muslim ceremonies and attacks on religious places. See Collectif contre l’islamophobie in France : Rapport d’étape du CCIF sur l’islamophobie en France, 2003-2004,