The American Interest

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Liberté, Égalité, Laïcité?

The French don't like headscarves. John Bowen explains why.

Published on January 1, 2007

John Bowen, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space

(Princeton University Press, 2006), 328 pp., $27.95.

John Bowen’s Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves is, its title notwithstanding, more a book about French political culture writ large than about Islam in France. And so it should be: Islam is now intrinsically linked with the definition of what it means to be French in political terms. This is not because Islamic ideas or groups of well-organized Muslims are threatening a well-entrenched French political culture, but because French political culture itself is being shaken by the vicissitudes of current history. A great debate over what defines France as a nation has been triggered in part from above, as the vaunted construction of Europe is weakening the nation-state model, and in part from below, as immigration, globalization and unemployment threaten to unravel the French social fabric. These changes are sufficiently vast as to overwhelm the traditional post-1789 tenets of French Jacobinism: the strong central state and the stress on citizenship, rather than sect or race, as the only focus of common political identity. But even if the present crisis does not originate with Muslim immigration, the debate nowadays in France (and not only in France) definitely centers on Islam.1

The French conflict over headscarves and other symbols of parochial religious affiliation thus represents both a manifestation of a deeper discontent and an overlay that is profoundly influencing how that discontent is understood and managed. To his credit, Bowen, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, has properly grasped the essence of the matter. This is what enables him to raise and answer the question, almost incomprehensible to most non-French, of how it could possibly be that some few dozen young schoolgirls wanting to wear a Muslim headscarf in the classroom could be seen as a vital threat to the Republic by some 70 percent of French public opinion. How could it be that a few young girls could trigger a full year of national angst, complete with two government-sponsored high-level commissions and a sprawling debate involving hundreds of newspapers articles, heated op-eds, impassioned televised debates and countless documentaries? How could they have driven the adoption in 2004 of a new law banning the headscarf from the schools?

Bowen answers these questions by way of a triptych. In part one, “State and Religion in the Long Run”, he establishes the basic historical context of the debate, without which nothing that happened in 2004 makes much sense. In part two, “Publicity and Politics, 1989–2005”, he tracks the headscarf controversy in detail, relying on many scores of interviews and a thorough familiarity with the avenues of debate and controversy. And in part three, “Philosophy, Media, Anxiety”, he tries to assay where French political culture is headed.

Women march through Paris in support of the headscarf ban, March 6, 2004. [credit: Associated Press]

Laïcité for the Un-French

It is not easy to explain the French notion of laïcité to Americans, not because it is entirely foreign to the American experience, but because it is close enough to it to give Americans exactly the wrong idea. Laïcité is about the separation of church and state, a concept Americans know well. But in America separation was designed to free religion from state interference (and vice versa), whereas in France separation evolved to exclude religion from public space and to promote the supremacy of the state over religious organizations. And the historical reasons for the distinction are clear enough. As de Tocqueville observed, the American Founders saw Protestant Christian religion as a support for freedom and civic virtue; French republicans saw the Catholic Church as having been complicit with the worst features of the ancien régime and sought to limit its sway over French democracy.

Bowen is therefore wise not to translate laïcité, but instead to describe it as the essence of French exceptionalism, as a political and legal secularism—based on the 1905 Law of Separation of Church and State—that has worked among the French Left (and now also among most of the Right) as a quasi-ideological axiom for defining the French political sphere. France is the opposite of a multicultural society, not in the sense that it promotes a “one-culture” model, but in that it defines citizenship wholly apart from cultural identities, communal belongings and sectarian affiliations, asserting instead an abstract homo politicus. This is the essence of French universalist ideology; laïcité both defines and protects that ideology. The headscarf affair was so fundamental an issue because it symbolized core assumptions about France’s universalist identity colliding head-on with demographic and social trends—notably an undeniable religious assertiveness among second-generation Muslims (and converts)—whose implications are plainly parochial in nature. A rough and fanciful analogy to American life would be a threat by academic post-modernists, having taken control of the U.S. government, to abolish the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that there are self-evident universal truths.

Laïcité is clearly anti-religious in practice, but it is not only or mainly anti-Islamic. Veiled women were long ago expelled from schools in France (by the army, no less): They were Catholic nuns, and it happened in 1904, exactly one hundred years before the law banning the scarf. Indeed, as Bowen explains, in both historical and philosophical terms the present debate on laïcité reflects the two-centuries long struggle between the French Republic and the Catholic Church. It started with the ambition of the French Revolution to control the Church (and to some extent religious beliefs, too), and eventually moved to a separation (the 1905 law) that sometimes amounted to expulsion—of clerics from schools, and of congregations from “metropolitan territory” (the soil of France, but not, interestingly enough, from French colonies, where missionary orders were supported by the secular state as a tool to control and integrate the indigenous population). Over time, laïcité itself became a philosophical, political and even an ideological concept that filled the vacuum left by the expulsion of religion from the public sphere. As such, it helped to unite a very divided Republican Left throughout the 20th century: Laïcité was the only common identity between center-left radicaux, social democrats and communists.

Moreover, the French school system was taken all along to be the battlefield par excellence of laïcité from 1905 to 2004. Supporters of ideological laïcité wanted the state to promote laïcité as a value system as well as enforce it as a law. The French republican tradition is deeply suspicious of any public manifestation of religious feeling. Indeed, France has the most restrictive laws among democratic countries as far as religious “cults” are concerned. There is now a debate in the Parliament over whether to rescind the status of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “religion”, recently bestowed by the courts, and instead to list them as a “cult.”

It is important to realize, however—as Bowen clearly does—that ideological laïcité is not really based on the law. In purely legal and constitutional terms, laïcité is no more than an extensive definition of the separation between church and state in the public sphere. As law, it has nothing to say about religious belief in the private sphere. It supposes the state to be a neutral actor: It does not define common secular values, and it does not so much ban as seek to regulate the presence of religion in the public sphere. It does so in the framework of the “public good” and of the 1905 law of separation, which delineates when church bells may be rung, how processions can interrupt traffic in city streets, how chaplains may serve in the armed forces and prisons, and when and where distinctive religious symbols may be worn.

French courts have a long and still-evolving tradition of solving church-state issues on a case-by-case basis, avoiding any philosophical or theological statements about what religion should say or be. But French politics has been suffused with the conflict for years. While by law the state is not supposed to meddle with “religion” but only, in the name of public order, with “culte”—meaning, in French legal terms, “organized religion”—the reality has been a fluctuating test of wills between religious communities and the state. After coming under attack in the early 20th century, the Catholic Church has been able to fight off state control of its institutions (the role of the bishop was acknowledged by the state only in 1923). And in the course of time a settled arrangement has been devised on religious symbols and activities in public spaces, including trivial issues such as where the bishop sits at an official dinner. It has been agreed.

The contradiction between the two approaches to laïcité—the legal, as defined by the courts, and the ideological, which shapes French political identity—is at the core of the 2004 headscarf crisis. When the Parliament enacted the new law banning the veil from schools, it did so precisely because the courts, upheld by the supreme court (Conseil d’État), had consistently refused to do so, except in isolated cases where wearing the headscarf was taken to be tantamount to religious proselytism or caused disturbances. The 2004 law thus represented the elevation of ideological over legal laïcité, the former now in the process of turning into sheer Islamophobia in the context of broader pan-European political trends and fears.

The new French and European Islamophobia brings together rightist supporters of a Christian European identity, and anti-Europe, anti-religious, anti-globalization leftists. What is happening in France is also happening in many European countries, not least in the Netherlands and Denmark; and what is happening in those and other countries is affecting perceptions in France, as well. Nevertheless, the French dilemma is most acute because of its strongly universalist republican convictions. In this sense France still is, as Marx said, the “political scene” of Europe.

But it is not a serene scene. At the core of France’s dilemma is the inability of French political discourse to confront new forms of religiosity emerging in every great Western religion, including Christianity. “Integralism” (a more precise and less misleading term than fundamentalism), the growing discrepancy between “faith communities” and the rest of civil society, extreme individualism, the deculturation of religious practice (in which the “born again” replaces the nominal Christian), moral conservatism, the impulse to engage in politics not to gain power but to force choices on moral values (against abortion and gay marriages, for example)—all of this is new to the traditional French formula, and all of it is a threat to the capacity of that formula to retain relevance. In France, as elsewhere, religious communities and secularists are not fighting to control a common public sphere: They exist in two different social spaces that only sometimes overlap and often clash when they do. This situation so radically alters the context of laïcité that it is on the verge of becoming incomprehensible. This has obviously not been caused by a mere headscarf, but it has been provoked by it.


Bowen cleverly and vividly describes for an American audience the French political debate without simplifying or distorting it. He skillfully blends historical background, factual descriptions of events, in-depth analysis and lively discussions with philosophers and politicians, social workers and ordinary people he meets in the street. The sample of opinion he proffers conveys well the full complexity and diversity of the debate, which Bowen makes intelligible for a large audience.

By way of background, Bowen debunks the myth that France’s supposed republican consensus has been shaken by the sudden assertiveness of Islam, convincingly showing that French society has been fiercely divided over the fundaments of politics at least since the Revolution. He shows also that the spirit of the 1905 law, if not its letter, has far more often than not been distorted by the state, which has never ceased to interfere with and even attempt to control religion.

Bowen also shows how in recent years Islam has brought a new challenge, not because it has a strong communal dimension—in fact, French Muslims are as individualistic, not to say anarchist, as other Frenchmen—but, on the contrary, because there are no legitimate Islamic institutions, no interlocutors who can discuss matters with the state. In the French tradition, both pre- and post-Revolution, religion is not about individual belief but group influence. The Ministry of Interior is thus in charge of cultes (“religious affairs”) in contemporary France, and all interior ministers since 1998 have tried to organize the Muslim community under their aegis. They have been trying desperately to push Muslims to unite under the umbrella of a French Council of Muslim Faith. They have (probably unwisely) negotiated with foreign states, whose governments are only too happy to turn French Muslims into hostages in bilateral relations, in order to promote a complacent Islam. As Bowen recounts, French interior ministers have even picked their favorite candidates for election in the council, all pretty much to no avail.

The French crisis of Islam shows the profound but changing ambivalence of laïcité. Never intended to represent a strict separation, laïcité has been reified into a new political religion more or less in proportion to the perception of the threat felt from French Muslim demographic and social trends. French authorities, whose experience includes two centuries of dealing with France’s Jews as a corporate body, are now trying to “frame” Islam in a similar unitary “national” context. But this solution does not make sense for a Muslim community of diverse origins, and it goes beyond what can reasonably be expected from France’s Muslims, most of whom wish to assimilate into French society to one degree or another.

In the central part of his book, Bowen describes in detail the psychodrama surrounding the 2004 debate on the law forbidding the veil. It is certainly the best account of the crisis in any language. He shows how unfair the debate really was. The media was blatantly biased against not only the veiled women, but also against any show of public religiosity from Muslims. (I recall the following comment from a Channel A2 journalist on a British Muslim mayor: “He is a moderate Muslim: He prays only once a day.”) Broadcasted debates mainly staged bearded, heavily accented foreign imams. The high-ranking civil servant in charge of organizing the Stasi Commission (which produced the report justifying the law on the veil) selected mainly non-veiled women to testify, many of them being foreigners (albeit perfect French speakers) who had come as political refugees to France and warned of Islamic pressures building in their countries of birth. Media producers and government officials disregarded the French veiled second-generation girls themselves. The resulting image was that the veil is foreign, backward, alienating and a harbinger of terrorism and violence.

In the aftermath of 9/11 the anti-veil campaign was, of course, a success. But Bowen shows how modern, individualist, educated and integrated most of the veiled schoolgirls actually are. They did not and do not fight in the name of a separate community and culture, but as individuals who want to be recognized as both citizens and believers. They see no clash of values or cultures, only an overextension of the principle of separation between religion and state—with which they agree in essence—to the public manifestation of personal faith. To the dismay of most French feminists, the veil girls even adopt the language of modern feminism—“My body is my business.”

Bowen is clearly sympathetic to both French political culture and the pro-veil schoolgirls. He thinks that the campaign against the veil was blown way out of proportion. Indeed, he is one of the few American scholars who seem to understand in depth the nature of France’s overwhelming hostility to the veil. But at the end of the book, after Bowen has carefully analyzed all sides of the story, he still wonders: “Why don’t the French like headscarves?” It is as if, after understanding the French down to the nth degree of nuance, he still can’t quite believe that they think and act as they do. In this, Bowen is himself a kind of virtual Frenchman. After all, Americans aren’t the only ones who seek self-understanding and sometimes fail to find it.


It is clear that multiculturalism is dying in western Europe. From Denmark to Great Britain it has been accused, wrongly or rightly, of fueling separateness and radicalism. Even in very tolerant Great Britain, where women police officers are permitted to wear the veil, high ministers are now calling into question the wearing of the burqa or jiljab (that is, a veil covering also the face). If tolerance is generally wearing thin in much of Europe, in France there is now specifically too much rigidity in laïcité. The issue of the veiled schoolgirls surely could have been handled without a law and in a less passionate atmosphere.

At the same time, a sharp debate is growing on the discrepancy between the two basic European conceptions of integration: one based on abstract political qualities of citizenship, the other on concrete attributes expressed in multiculturalism. That debate is motivated by the recognition that neither model is working very well with European Muslims, and officials all across Europe are at wits end trying to figure out what to try next. Apartheid, exclusion and racism are clearly unacceptable options on the extreme end of an ethno-racial definition of national belonging. But, at the other extreme, defining citizenship as merely holding a passport or an identity card is not enough. At least in the liberal understanding of the concept, citizenship means participating in a common social venture. To exclude from that venture the yearnings of faith, and the healthy exercise of learning to tolerate different expressions of faith, was never a good idea. Today it has become an impossible one. ?

1. The best in-depth survey of Muslims in France is Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France (Brookings Institution Press, 2006).


Olivier Roy is the author of Globalized Islam (Columbia University Press, 2004).