France sees sense on scarves
The Conseil d’Etat (State Council) is a body of the French national government that acts both as legal adviser to the President of the Republic and ministers, and as the supreme court for administrative justice. On Monday 23 December 2013, the Conseil d’Etat ruled that mothers who wear a scarf are allowed to accompany school trips. One is grateful for the existence of the Conseil d’Etat, to tone down or rectify the madder decrees of our trendy ministers. Luc Chatel, education minister under Sarkozy, had sent a circular in 2011 to nursery and primary schools, suggesting that they include in their school rules a ban on mothers accompanying school trips if they wear a scarf (as part of being a Muslim). Not all schools did include this ban in their internal rules; this made for a patchwork situation, some schools operating the ban, others not. A mother could find herself allowed on one child’s trip and not on his sister’s if they went to different schools.
A collective was founded to protest at this state of affairs: Mères toutes égales (Mothers all equal). One of the founders was a member of a parents association (France has several national parents associations, of differing political colour, for parents of school age children, that express their opinions on school matters). Her name is Ismahane Chouder, and she makes the very useful point that we should talk about mothers ‘wearing a scarf’, not ‘the veil’. It is a scarf, such as women in the 1950s used to cover their heads with when leaving the house. There are glamorous photos of Brigitte Bardot wearing one such.
Standards of modesty vary with time, and standards prevalent in France in the fifties might as well never have existed. The idea of wearing a scarf out of modesty is seen as a medieval custom. Calling the scarf a scarf instead of a veil would help bring it into the realm of the ordinary, where it belongs.
There is a discussion on limits to immigration in Britain today in the press: the Evening Standard all against limits, the Daily Mail all in favour, the Guardian in between. The French government tries to suppress this topic of discussion, by introducing red herring topics nationally. (The most recent one was an attempt at a law making prostitution illegal, which amused the public for a while.) Discussing immigration directly would involve discussing wages and housing, all dangerous topics. So you deflect this and discuss women and girls wearing the scarf, which of course the government calls the veil, to make it sound as outlandish as possible. A report was commissioned on secularism in public life. It suggested that girls might be allowed to wear the scarf at school after all (it was banned in 2004). Shock horror, acres of print and outrage on the airwaves. It also suggested teaching Arabic in schools. It is a shame if this useful initiative gets buried because of the scarf controversy.
A new body was created to oversee the secular character of public life, called the Observatoire de la Laïcité (Observatory for Secularism in public life). There was already a “High Council on Integration” with a section specialising in questions of secularity; the Observatoire replaces this section. One of its members, Dounia Bouzar, a convert to Islam anxious to defuse Islamic fundamentalism, suggested that two Christian festivals should be removed from the calendar of public holidays and replaced by one Jewish festival and one Islamic festival to be celebrated by all. The Observatoire de la Laïcité is probably not going to be a great source of common sense ideas.
Council of State (2)
The newspaper L’Humanité read the advice given by the Council of State on the scarf and school outings. The advice is that mothers wearing a scarf can accompany school trips, as reported above, but the text also says that ‘in order to do their job properly, education personnel might have to recommend to parents that they should abstain from making manifest their religious beliefs (when accompanying school trips).’ So the situation is in fact not much clearer than before.
Teachers and school personnel are not necessarily anti-Muslim when they make these rules against the wearing of a scarf. They are simply anti-clerical, in the old republican tradition. The Republic was founded against the Church, in the later years of the Revolution, then in 1875 when the Republic was finally established for good. And the education system was made the corner stone of anti-clericalism: the school of the Republic was to be ‘free, compulsory and non-religious’. Otherwise monarchists would take over again. Teachers have been vigilant since the 1882 laws founding the modern school system. They were vigilant during the war, when Pétain had the right, in theory, to put religious symbols back on school walls. He advised against it, knowing the strength of feeling among teachers.
And they are vigilant now. Religion must be kept out of schools. Religion is only acceptable in the home behind closed doors. Hence the discrepancies among schools: some staff are more obsessed with this old-fashioned anti-religious preoccupation than others. But it is common among the French to associate religion with reactionary views. A number of Muslims also would prefer women not to wear the scarf, let alone the full length face covering outfit.
Some socialists at the end of the nineteenth century denounced anti-clericalism because it was a diversion from the class struggle: attacking priests took the place of striking for more pay: ‘they give us priests to eat, but it’s bread we want’ was the cry of these socialists. Something similar is happening now: the discussion should centre on low pay and bad housing, issues shared by Muslims and non Muslims.
Anti-islamic measures are also a diversion from a discussion of immigration; as in England, employers favour the employment of already qualified workers, or alternatively of cheap labour, from abroad. The population, on the other hand, would prefer a limit of foreign labour, both to preserve the familiarity of their neighbourhoods and to protect employment. Even l’Humanité makes the case for a limitation of immigration, saying that such a limit would be helpful to immigrants already settled in France. State discrimination against women wearing a scarf gives the impression that the authorities are ‘against immigrants’, when in fact they are in favour of immigration.
Dismantling Roma encampments, expelling some members of that community also gives the public the impression the government is doing something to address their concerns about immigration. But in fact illegal immigration is much smaller than legal immigration: there are 2.6 million foreigners legally present in France; between 200,000 and 400,000 are there without papers; of those, 36,000 had their situation made legal in 2012. And 36, 822 were expelled in 2012. (These figures originate from the Ministry of the Interior and an organization for the defence of immigrants called Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés (Immigrant Information and Support Group).
Bishops congratulate local candidates
Teachers are right to be wary! The Church is interfering in public affairs! And just before the next elections! A Catholic magazine called La Vie (Life) on 11 December published a communication from the Conference of Bishops of France. On the occasion of the forthcoming local elections (23 and 30 March 2014), the Bishops wrote, encouraging people to vote and congratulating the future candidates for their ambition to serve the common good at local level. Their text said that the local councillors are rooted in their locality, and these roots give meaning to their personal and social lives; local politicians work for the common good in contrast to the prevailing individualism. Nevertheless politicians are branded as useless in populist speeches.
La Vie suggested that this allusion to ‘populist speeches’ is a veiled attack on the National Front; the Bishops are careful not to be explicitly involved in politics. Of course the Bishops have done worse than comment on forthcoming local elections: in the big 2012 debate, they took up a position against same sex marriage, and against teaching children that differences between men and women are mainly constructed by society.
Traditional anti-clericalism is a handicap for modern French society: it prevents it from hearing the Catholic message of working for the common good and against individualism, which otherwise could have developed into an important Christian Democrat movement, and it prevents it using common sense when dealing with people who think of religion as a social bond between its members, and for whom external signs are important. Anti-clericalism also distracts people from the real issues, and it divides them when they should be united.