Godless France

Posted: Jan 12, 2004 12:00 AM

It's somewhat odd that France, a country where a fashionable scarf is almost mandatory, is considering banning students from wearing a head scarf -- called a hijab -- in public schools. Even the French have their limit on "vive la difference."

President Jacques Chirac created a 20-member commission to look at where to draw the line on secularism. Last month, the panel recommended a ban on public-school students wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols -- including the hijab, large crucifixes and yarmulkes.

Apres the recommendation, le deluge of criticism. The standard American reaction -- from the State Department to political pundits -- has been to chastise France for its lack of religious tolerance, especially since this rule might alienate the country's large Muslim population. A U.S. official summed up that reaction when he berated the move as infringing on "a basic right that should be protected."


Why do scolds overlook radical rules in backwater countries while demanding absolute purity from Western democracies? Right now, female humanitarian aid workers are wearing head scarves in earthquake-damaged Iran because they believe they need to do so in order save lives. Women (regardless of their personal beliefs) in Saudi Arabia must wear abayas in public -- or risk being beaten or jailed.

But when France considers saying no to the hijab in public schools -- not public places, not private schools -- France is repressive.

Of course, a similar ban likely would be illegal in the United States, where freedom of religion rightly is protected by the Constitution. America, unlike France, was founded to protect the right to worship freely.

The French constitution, however, preaches secularism and prohibits religion in public schools. If the French go too far, well, that's their affair. When Americans insist that the French govern like Yankees, we risk sounding as arrogant as, well, the French.

Besides, the Bush administration shouldn't be so sure that a hijab limit couldn't happen here. A Florida court turned down a Muslim woman who wanted to pose veiled for her driver's license photo. When American parents insist that their children be taught creationism, and not evolution, public school officials tell the parents where they can go -- parochial or private school. And editorial writers agree.

Encore France.

For their part, the French are trying to cope with Muslim students who refuse to participate in co-ed physical education classes or walk out of history classes on the Holocaust for religious reasons. In a sense, then, it's downright Franco-American to expect those students to attend a parochial school.

My only complaint is that the French aren't quite being honest. The government boasts that France "has a strong tradition of hospitality and is open to all religions" -- without the caveat that all religionists not be too serious.

French Consul General Frederic Desagneaux explained, "Secularism is the common and the shared value of French citizens." Thus, other French citizens refer to the French "duty" to put state before God. When Chirac announced that "secularism is not negotiable," he was acting as the very pope of French secularism. The secular state is a religion.

Critics can scoff, as newspaper writers have, that it is wrong for lawmakers to assume that France's secularism is so shallow that it can't withstand girls in head scarves in public schools. It is a tenet of faith in modern punditry that any rule that limits religious practice creates a backlash -- unless it involves Bible thumping. Then, they think, the true believers get what they deserve.

Meanwhile, in these politically correct times, there's something refreshing about a European country standing up for its culture, its (in this case godless) traditions and deciding that its secular values are so important that they need not be sacrificed to the gods of diversity.