Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Veiled Truths

The Cour de Cassation has just issued a decision in the "Baby Loup" case, throwing out a previous ruling that the day care center's manager was within her rights to ban the wearing of a veil by an employee. This being private space, the court ruled that the veil could be banned by the employer only for carefully delimited reasons of safety, health, ability to perform duties, etc.

Nevertheless, a poll finds that 83% of the French favor the extension of the veil ban to the firm, the street, semipublic spaces like restaurants and stores, etc. Alain Finkielkraut, meanwhile, has just published L'identité malheureuse, one of the bestsellers of the fall season, in which he explicitly criticizes Americans like me with our "innocents abroad" notions of multiculturalism. France cannot survive the onslaught of conflicting symbolisms, he argues. It is and always has been a monist culture, in which the foreigner can assimilate only by shedding all alien affiliations. And the foreigner must be grateful for being deprived of his patrimoine by a culture as rich as that of France, which has brought the world so much treasure of truth and beauty. I caricature, but only slightly.

To tell the truth, I see more headscarves daily in my North Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood than I saw during 2 weeks in France, though I'm sure I wasn't sampling the towns and neighborhoods where the Muslim population is densest. Still, the response seems far stronger than the stimulus warrants. The same can be said of the Roma problem. Despite the fact that there are only 20,000 in the country, everyone I talked to seems to believe that they are at the gates of every town and village in France and Navarre. The mathematical impossibility of such ubiquity carries no weight against the evidence of what people think they have vu, vu de leurs yeux, vu! 

The eternal recurrence of these two highly symbolic issues calls for an analysis of the French psyche. I'm not sure I'm ready to give it, but I'm pondering the matter.


brent said...

Reading about these extraordinary levels of islamophobia (and what else can you call this head scarf fetish the French have acquired?), I have to wonder about your claim in the previous post, that the ascendency of the FN in the polls "does not, however, represent adhesion to Frontist ideas or values." If suppression of Islamic cultural habits, coupled with hysterical fear of the Roma, isn't at the core of 'Frontist values,' what is?

MCG said...

You will recall that back when the French government banned headscarves in schools, the head of the Muslim congregations in Paris said that Islam does not require women to wear a headscarf. So this is not a religious question at all, and certainly not of opposition to practice of a religion, it is a question of a minority's using aggressive advertising, and using women as though they were human billboards. It is objectionable on several grounds.

Anonymous said...

France is basically a country that still thinks it has a colonial empire and behaves arrogantly with minorities, immigrants and people who are different. That's why immigrants and minorities live in poorer neighbourhoods because French society is socially divided unless you abandon your previous identity and become another Frenchman/woman.

In the World Values Survey, France comes out highest of Western European countries in terms of intolerance of people of other races, homosexuals and religions. So much for liberty and equality and all other pardon my French Bee-S.

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is why veil-wearing has become so ubiquitous in recent years and why muslim women who were uncovered in the past have taken to wearing it. "Identity" wars? Saudi influence?

Hijabs were officially discouraged in the past in Turkey and Tunisia, there are to this day in islamic countries courageous women fighting against it, why should it be encouraged in France?


brent said...

@ Mélanie
"why should it {i.e. wearing the head-scarf] be encouraged in France?"
Well, I'm not sure anyone is calling for encouragement, but why not just ban it? Because telling Muslim women they aren't allowed to wear a head-scarf in public is a TOTAL VIOLATION of their human rights. Why is this so hard for French people to understand?

Boris said...

@ Brent
I don't know where you live.
In France we see the rise of islamic fundamentalism within a minority growing larger and larger. And many are getting more and more intolerant, proselyte, wanting to impose more and more of their ways (sharia) to their fellow muslims but also to everybody else. This pressure is getting to be way too much. Don't forget many women are wearing the headscarf not by choice, but because their husband/family impose it on them, or by fear that they would incur retaliation. All the kids in schools are confronted to this to the point where it's practically impossible for girls to wear skirts. It's an incredible regression in particular of women's rights. There is no similar phenomenon in the US, in which anyway multiculturalism is a genetic trait. In some countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey..) the struggle on the headscarf is very fierce, and what happens in the West is closely followed. It really is the new cold war!

Mitch Guthman said...

@ Brent,

I am not aware that the display of conspicuous signs of religious belonging is a human right.

Religion is a private matter and its intrusion into the common space shared by everyone is antithetical to the principles of a république laïque.

brent said...


That's right--round up those orthodox Jews, shave off their beards, make them wear normal clothes. And nuns--how could properly laic French people have let them roam the streets imposing their Catholicism on the rest of us for the whole of the 20th century? And priests-off with those funny collars if they want to walk down my sidewalk.

Sorry, but the practice of one's religion IS a human right, and there is some spillover into the public sphere. Tolerant societies accept that we all "intrude into the common space" as who we are, and religious identity is one of countless ways we do that. Your laic principles, applied selectively to one group only, are no principle at all, and risk becoming a tool for discrimination.

Mitch Guthman said...


You are mistaken about the nature and scope of secularism in France. The law does deny anyone the freedom of religion and there has always been a certain amount of play in the joints of secularism. The current conflict with the wearing of religious garb, with praying in the public streets and parks and so forth goes to the very heart of whether France is a secular republic.

French law does not ban all public displays of faith. It does not permit the display of symbols of faith by other religions while criminalising similar displays by Muslims and it does not impinge upon freedom of religion. The bans apply to all conspicuous signs of religious belonging (including Jewish skullcaps and large crosses. Priests and nuns would not be covered because of exemptions for clergy).

Laïcité, as expressed in the 1905 law and the 1958 Constitution, was intended to reduce the power of the church while preserving both the neutrality of the public space and the freedom of religion for believers of all faiths. It applies equally to all faiths. The French scholar Jean Rivero said this about the strict separation of church and state: “[T]here is a refusal, by the State, to endorse one faith, to give to it an official seal of approval by making a religious judgment, or to give it any material aid in whatever form. Religious choice is a private matter; the State presents itself to all, stripped of all metaphysical symbols, distant from any trace of the spiritual. My domain is the earth, it says to all of its citizens. Manager of the temporal world, it refuses to envisage what is beyond this management.” This is also expressed in the important republican principle of “une et indivisible” meaning that the same justice must be given to all.

That is to say, laïcité is at the very heart of républicanisme. The laic ideal expressed in the 1905 law represents a careful balance between church and state; it rests upon the twin pillars of freedom of conscience and the necessary submission of all individuals to the law of the republic. The purpose of bans on the display of religious symbols is to preserve the neutrality of the state and of public places by insuring that no religious faction may seek to dominate in public places and most particularly in schools, where young people may be easily intimidated.

This framework of separation of the religious and public spheres is essential to the freedom of the individual to think and believe as he choses. The laic ideal is what makes it possible for people of different faiths to share a common space. Without the carefully separated, neutral spaces afforded by application of strict laïcité, bloody conflict between different faiths and between church and state is inevitable.

brent said...

@ Mitch
Recall that the point of origin of this exchange was the data point that suggests that 83% of French people want to ban wearing headscarves, not in schools or government offices (already done, along with 'large crucifixes,' as you note, yarmulkas, etc.), but on sidewalks, in restaurants, offices, and other public--not state-sponsored--areas. My point is that 1) this extension of existing law would apply an exclusionary rule to just one group--Christians, Jews, Buddhists, et al. could still wear clothing and accoutrements, as they now do, that identify their religious group, but Muslims couldn't; and 2) the existing prohibitions already reflect a double standard, as for example the permissibility of NOT large crucifixes, or the Palm Sunday procession I witnessed last March in which the French cardinal was leading a large group of Christians in prayer in a public place. (I was one of them.) To accept this with a Gallic shrug, then declare the republic is in peril because Muslims also pray in public (for want of sufficient mosque space) is to support the notion that France is 'really' a Christian country, despite the secular pieties of the 1905 law, and Muslims are there on sufferance.

Cincinna said...

Never mind that we are coming up on Toussaints ( All Saints Day, All Soul's Day or Halloween) that is a national holiday in France, as is Pentecost, Ascension, Assumption, and other Roman Catholic feast days. Every agenda is marked by day, giving the Saint's Day on each page along with the date. France is deluding itself to believe it is a secular country treating all religions equally, i.e. with disdain. How secular and respectful of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and atheists is that?

In America we are blessed with our Bill of Rights that guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion and the free exercise thereof (First Amendment).
Let's stop being ridiculous here, wearing a head scarf, a yarmulke, or a cross is a personal choice protected by the 1st Amendment right to free speech, not comparable to blocking traffic and lying down in the street to pray, which is against the law, and a danger to public safety.
Here in NY, I see more women in headscarves, and Sikhs in turbans in a week than I saw in two months recently in France. Nobody cares if they aren't breaking the law, or interfering with anyone else's rights. One of my friends is a doctor, the head of major department in one of the finest hospitals in the country. He is an orthodox Jew who wears a yarmulke, another acquaintance, a doctor, is a senior fellow at a top hospital here, and he, too wears a yarmulka. They treat all patients, and heal, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, and perform tremendous good for the entire community. They are highly respected members of the medical community.
Parking rules are suspended for all the Jewish holidays, out of respect for Jewish religious practices. One of our neighborhood synagogues rents out our entire church every year for the Jewish High Holy Day services, because they don't have a large enough space for all their members. Our Ministers meets on a regular basis with other Protestant clergy, Roman Catholics, Jews, and Muslims in an Interfaith Council, and there are discussions among members.
If the religion of the state becomes secularism, and all other religions are discriminated against, suppressed, or persecuted, wherein the freedom?
In NY, at Christmas, in front of Municipal buildings and courthouses, Menorahs, Christmas trees and in some areas, the star and crescent are displayed. Christmas carols are sung. The Mayor of the City of New York, who is Jewish, is the honored guest in the front pew at Midnight Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral.
New Yorkers have learned the lesson well: if you ban one religion's holidays, symbols, and celebrations, yours might very well be next.

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ZI said...

" It is and always has been a monist culture, in which the foreigner can assimilate only by shedding all alien affiliations."

And it worked for generations of poles and italians, not least Finkielkraut himself. Why should we change a winning formula?

Notice how it seems to fail precisely at the time when the french are the least confident in themselves and their place in the world.

Behind all the secular posturing (laïcité and all that), lies a simpler truth. People in France do things in a certain way, and they fail to see why they should change it. They are not used to veils which for them probably seems to be a symbol of female subserviance (it's at the heart of every discussion on the issue), and they don't see why they should accept it.

And why should we change really? I can trace my lineage in France for two centuries, why should I change anything to my way of life, the way I see the world, just because in the last three decades some newcomers want a special treatment? To pick a popular exemple, the pool opens until 9 PM to both men and woman and that should be the end of it.

It's our country, our history, immigrants should fit in, we don't have to make room for them. In Rome do as the romans do.

I know these views are probably considered xenophobic these days, but I genuinely fail to see why it is wrong to think so.