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France Bans the Veil in Public Schools

“Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience. It protects the freedom to believe or not to believe.”
– Jacques Chirac

When the Stasi Commission completed its survey, it recommended a series of actions to combat the social and religious tensions in the suburbs, including adding Jewish and Muslim religious holidays to the school calendar and emphasizing teaching about religion, slavery, and decolonization in North Africa. Other proposals included measures to improve life in immigrant neighborhoods and the implementation of a newly created charter of laïcité to be recited at naturalization ceremonies for new citizens.1

 

In the foreground, two girls wearing veils work on an assignment together at their desks. In the background, other students also work at their desks.

Among the Commission’s recommendations was also a proposal to ban the veil in public schools, a measure that many felt should be central to a new law aimed at defending France’s secularity. President Chirac defended the proposal to ban the veil and other large religious symbols in schools. This was the only recommendation that the French legislature ended up adopting.

This was the right decision, Chirac argued, because the veil was an “aggressive” symbol and France could no longer accept “ostentatious signs of religious proselytism [trying to persuade people to follow a particular religion].”2 In a nationally televised speech, Chirac also defended his vision of a unified, secular France:

Splitting society into communities cannot be the choice for France. It would be contrary to our history, traditions and culture....Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience. It protects the freedom to believe or not to believe. It guarantees everyone the possibility of expressing and practicing their faith, peacefully and freely, without the threat of the imposition of other convictions or beliefs. It allows women and men from all corners of the globe, from all cultures, to be protected in their beliefs by the Republic and its institutions....

Like all freedoms, freedom of expression of religious beliefs can be limited only by the freedom of the other and observance of the rules of life in society. Religious freedom, which our country respects and protects, cannot be hijacked. It cannot undermine the common rule. It cannot impinge on the freedom of conviction of others. It is this subtle, precious and fragile balance, patiently built up over decades, which respect for the principle of secularism ensures. And this principle is an opportunity for France. This is why it is set down in Article 1 of our Constitution. This is why it is not negotiable!...

We must also reaffirm secularism at school, because school must be completely protected. School is first and foremost the place where the values bequeathed to us all are acquired and passed on. The instrument par excellence for entrenching the republican idea...school is a republican sanctuary which we must defend....To protect our children, so that our youngsters are not exposed to divisive ill winds, which drive people apart and set them against one another....

In all conscience, I consider that the wearing of clothes or signs which conspicuously denote a religious affiliation must be prohibited at school.

Discreet signs, for example a cross, a Star of David or Hand of Fatima, will of course remain allowed. On the other hand, conspicuous signs, i.e., those which stand out and immediately denote religious affiliation, must not be tolerated. These—the Islamic veil, regardless of the name you give it, the Kippah, or a cross of a clearly excessive size—have no place in state schools. State schools will remain secular....It is to make the young people involved understand what is at stake and protect them from influences and passions which, far from liberating them or allowing them to make free choices, constrain or threaten them....On the other hand—and the question has been raised—I do not think it necessary to add new national holidays to the school calendar, which already has many....

I very solemnly proclaim: the Republic will oppose everything which divides, everything which discourages participation, and everything which excludes! The rule is “everyone together” because this places everyone on an equal footing, because it refuses to distinguish on the grounds of sex, origin, colour or religion.3

Muslim leaders protested the law as an attack on their religion, and demonstrations took place in France and in other countries. But within a year, the public row subsided. Reporter Adam Sage summarized its effect:

In the year since the law was implemented 626 girls have arrived for les- sons wearing a Muslim headscarf—compared with 1,465 over the previous 12 months and more than 5,000 at the start of the decade. Of these, 496 agreed to remove them when summoned for a talk with the head teacher. A further 45 refused and were expelled.4

Many of these girls were placed in Catholic schools, which permit religious symbols. Others accepted the law. Sage interviewed Fathima, who was 16 in 2005. She said that she had learned to respect the law: “In the end I really don’t think it was a bad law at all. I wear my voile until I get to the school gates and then I take it off. School is not a place for religion. It is a place where we are all French and we are all equal. After lessons, I put the scarf back on again. There’s no difficulty.”5 Moreover, soon after the law went into effect, the so-called Islamic Army in Iraq kidnapped two French journalists and demanded that President Jacques Chirac overturn the ban if he wished to spare their lives. The Muslim population was united in condemning these actions and called for the unconditional release of the hostages. But while the protest against the law subsided, the social unrest in the banlieues did not.

On the evening of October 27, 2005, the police attempted to stop a group of French Muslim teenagers who were playing soccer in a field next to high-rise projects in Clichy-sous-Bois (one of the poorest banlieue neighborhoods near Paris). Though no crime was committed, a deadly chase ensued, and two young French Muslims who scaled an electrical substation were electrocuted.6 News of the deaths spread rapidly via text messages, cell phones, and chat rooms. Sporadic clashes that started in Clichy-sous-Bois quickly spread to the nearby suburbs, then to nearby towns, and finally to all major cities across the country. Over the next two weeks, fires raged across France’s suburbs, leaving behind a trail of charred cars, shopping centers, police stations, schools, and other symbols of the French state.

Citations

  • laïcité : French for “secularity.” The term comes from the word lay or laity, which refers to Christians who did not belong to religious orders or to the clergy. Secularism is used to describe governments that maintain a separation of church and state. Countries such as France, which upholds this separation, ask believers to practice their religion for the most part in private. While generally the term refers to the neutrality of the state toward religious groups, some in France interpret it as the Republic’s official culture.
  • 1 : Paul A. Silverstein, “Headscarves and the French Tricolor,” the Middle East Reports website, January 30, 2004, (accessed April 23, 2008).
  • secularity : Secularism is used to describe governments that maintain a separation of church and state. Countries such as France, which upholds this separation, ask believers to practice their religion for the most part in private. While generally the term refers to the neutrality of the state toward religious groups, some in France interpret it as the Republic’s official culture.
  • 2 : Jon Henley, “Something Aggressive About Veils, Says Chirac,” the Guardian, December 6, 2003, (accessed   March 20, 2007).
  • Hand of Fatima : The Hand of Fatima (named after the daughter of the prophet Muhammad) is another name for the Hamsa hand, a symbol used by Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
  • Kippah : Literally meaning “dome” or “mountaintop,” kippah is the Hebrew word for a Jewish skullcap often worn by many Orthodox and other Jewish men as a sign of devotion and respect for God.
  • 3 : The teaching week— much like the workweek—and the holidays in France follow the Christian calendar.
  • 4 : Adam Sage, “Headscarf Ban Is Judged Success as Hostility Fades,” the Times Online, September 5, 2005,   (accessed January 3, 2008).
  • banlieues : Suburbs on the outskirts of large cities in France where, in many cases, the majority of the population are North African immigrants. Many areas in these neighborhoods are marked by poverty, very high unemployment rates, black markets, and crime.
  • 5 : Ibid.

Connection Questions

  1. Why did President Chirac think that public schools must be pro- tected from the influence of religion?
  2. What does the phrase “ostentatious signs of religious proselytism” mean? Why did President Chirac think that such signs were splitting French society into separate communities?
  3. What did the law achieve? What did it fail to achieve? How did the Muslim population respond to it?
  4. Anthropologist John Bowen suggests that there were other ways for French schools to respond to the veil. He asks, “When girls of fourteen or seventeen try out . . . a new appearance, what does developmental psychology suggest is the best response? How did a girl’s peers respond when she appeared with her head covered?” What do Bowen’s questions add to the conversation? What factors does he hope politicians will consider when they respond to the veil?

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