France and the Islamic veil

30th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

French government efforts towards closer integration of the country's five million-strong Muslim community are threatened by a row over the legality of the Islamic headscarf. Hugh Schofield reports.


Angry reaction by Muslims to remarks made at the Easter weekend by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has reignited the long-standing debate in France over whether females should be allowed to wear Islamic headscarves in schools and other public places.

Speaking before an audience of around 10,000 conservative Muslims in the north Paris suburb of Le Bourget, Sarkozy received boos and cat-calls when he said all women are obliged to remove their head covering when they pose for identity photographs.

"The law says that on the photo for identity cards the person must be bare-headed, whether it is a man or a woman .... There is no reason why Muslim women should not respect this," the minister told the meeting of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF).

Traditionalist Muslims believe that the Koran instructs women to keep their heads covered when outside the precincts of the immediate family, and they view France's determination to impose its secular values on them as a religious affront.

Tension at the meeting only increased when the UOIF's secretary-general Abdallah Ben Mansour - while insisting Muslims were bound to obey national law — said they should also work to change it, reminding the audience that "the law imposing the yellow star on the Jews was in the end suppressed."

Sarkozy was applauded across the political spectrum for his courage in preaching the message of secularism to some of its firmest opponents, though some also urged him to take tougher action against what they fear is the growing influence of conservative Islam in France.

The UOIF, which is aligned with the traditionalist movement called The Muslim Brotherhood, emerged in elections last week as a powerful force within France's first ever officially-recognised national Islamic body - the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM).

Some fear that in trying to set up a permanent line of contact with France's five million Muslims, Sarkozy has accorded too much power to the UOIF and similar-minded groups at the expense of those liberals who want to see develop in France a modern and indigenous form of Islam.

The tension is starting to focus around the question of the headscarf, which for the last 15 years has provided a succession of bitterly-fought legal cases without ever being fully resolved.

Progressives are urging Sarkozy to take a clear stand by outlawing the headscarf in schools and thus removing the ambiguity that has prevailed since the first legal ruling in 1989. Conservative Muslims are equally opposed, arguing that any new law would be an assault on their freedom of religion.

The confusion over the status of headscarves owes much to the 1989 decision by the state council — France's highest administrative court — which said that the wearing of signs intended to show a pupil's membership of a religion was not necessarily a breach of the basic principle of secularism.

Islamic headscarves only warranted a girl's exclusion from school if they were worn "in a way that is ostentatious or demonstrative," or if they obstructed the process of learning, the state council said.

The resulting uncertainty has led to a succession of legal claims and counter-claims, most recently last month in the southeastern city of Lyon.

Around 100 girls have been excluded from French state schools for wearing headscarves since 1994, but in half the cases courts subsequently overturned the decision.

April 2003


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