France struggles to maintain its secularist creed.
Who would have thought a piece of cloth could threaten the stability of the French state?
For several days last week, the National Assembly in France debated the wisdom of a draft law that would ban most religious symbols from public schools. Although the move is aimed at preventing Muslim girls from showing up in the schoolyard with various degrees of swathing on their heads, President Jacques Chirac and his ministers, in a bow to egalitarianism, also have declared that items like Christian crosses deemed too large and Jewish skullcaps will be prohibited.
The debate has little to do with the usual reasons for school dress codes and everything to do with the French state's historical impulse to impose its republican value system on an increasingly diverse population that includes 5 million Muslims, about 8 percent of the population.
The practices of these new arrivals are often cast as a challenge to Christianity, but in many ways they challenge another religion entirely - the unofficial creed of secularism, which underlies the French conception of government and dates to 1789 and the French Revolution itself. In contrast to pluralist societies that try to accept, or even celebrate, cultural differences among their citizens, the French ideal envisions a uniform, secularized French identity as the best guarantee of national unity and the separation of church and state...
In this atmosphere, the law of laïcité, or secularism, has taken on a do-or-die, us-against-them urgency, and the proposed ban on the veil in school is an effort to draw a line against any further demands.
Read the entire article on the International Herald Tribune website.