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Many are up in arms after a Muslim schoolgirl in France was sent home for wearing a long skirt deemed to have broken a nationwide ban on religious signs and clothing in schools.

It is important to bear two historical realities in mind in order to understand how such an expulsion came about.

First, the French government has been dedicated to an official state policy of secularism called laïcité since the nineteenth century, when socialist Prime Minister Jules Ferry purged the country of religious schools. In 1989, the principal of a middle school in Creil evoked this philosophy in expelling three Muslim students for wearing hijabs (headscarves).

The decision was controversial, but popular opinion turned in favor of the principal. In 1994, François Bayrou, the minister of education, recommended that all schools forbid religious signs "so ostentatious that their precise effect is to separate certain students from the common life of the school."

His directive continued, "The French idea of the nation and of the Republic is, by its very nature, respectful of all convictions, especially religious and political ones. ... But it forbids the nation from breaking down into separate communities, indifferent to one another, considering only their own ways of life and their own laws, content merely to co-exist. The nation is not only a group of citizens possessing individual rights; the nation is a community that shares a common destiny."

We need to bear a fundamental distinction in mind in speaking about the separation of church and state in the United States and in France. Not only were the founders of the modern French Republic as anticlerical as our Pilgrims and Puritans were religious; moreover, while the United States takes its inspiration from an individualistic, Lockean liberalism, behind the French Revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité is a Rousseauian philosophy that prizes shared national values and the common good over individual claims and interests.

While much of the West praises multiculturalism, then, it is viewed with suspicion by such French intellectuals as Emmanuel Todd, a sociologist who prefers a "universalist" paradigm. I translate:

"People consider Great Britain and Germany to be tolerant, and on the other hand, interpret the rejection of the veil in France as a sign of intolerance, even xenophobia. Yet it’s precisely the opposite! The tolerance of the British rests, in fact, on a 'differentialist' mentality, that is to say, on the idea that there are different races and that one must separate them. They basically believe the Pakistani community shouldn’t get mixed up in their own: an Englishman simply will not allow his son to marry a Pakistani woman.

"On the other hand, the French presupposition is universalist: if people’s behaviors are similar to our own, then by all means, they’re welcome here! We are for intermarriage, for the mixing of populations. And this is incompatible with the preservation of immigrant cultures … Look at the United States, an individualistic, liberal, mobile society, which for thirty years has tried to play down the difference between whites and blacks — without success. In France, we function just fine."

For Todd, French universalism upholds two basic principles: the integration of strangers into society, and the fundamental equality of men and women. He and other critics of Islam regard the veil as an affront on both of these levels: it turns Muslims into a separatist enclave, and it identifies women as subservient to men.

This sounds like an enlightened critique — yet the second historical reality behind the debate over religious clothing is a long-standing colonialist mentality toward Muslims. For instance, intending to vaunt the French "mixing of civilizations," Todd complains in his book "The Fate of Immigrants" that "French colonization left mixed-race children everywhere, except in the Arab-Berber world." This wounded pride at the Algerians' reluctance to marry their handsome invaders is only the tip of the iceberg of French exceptionalism today.

While universalists claim to welcome the stranger, in point of fact, Muslims imported for cheap labor from the North African protectorates were historically housed in shabby projects and denied opportunities to integrate, in hopes that they would soon return home. More recently, waves of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa have arrived in France as the unwitting victims of human traffickers promising a lucrative career in the tourism industry. Exploitation at the hands of Europeans has made these uprooted immigrants more likely to identify with radical forms of Islam in a search for meaning and acceptance.

Harsh anti-immigrant invective runs freely even at the highest levels of French society. In 1991 alone, former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing spoke of an “invasion” of immigrants, François Mitterand conceded that “the threshold of tolerance had been breached,” and future President Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, remarked:

"To have Spaniards, Poles, and Portuguese working here poses fewer problems than having blacks and Muslims ... I mean, when you’ve got a Frenchman who works, and so does his wife, and together they earn 15,000 francs per year, and then over on the landing of the project next door he sees a whole family crammed in — a man with three or four wives and twenty-something kids, earning 50,000 francs from social security without ever having to work. … I mean, if you add in the noise and the stench, you can see how the Frenchman is going to go crazy!"

True, experiences of horrific violence against women in Muslim ghettos loom large in French consciousness, as will the murders at Charlie Hebdo — reminders that radical Islam can be inimical to human rights.

Yet the tension between Muslims and secularists in France must clearly be understood in light of the country's historic attachment not only to the equality of the sexes and freedom of thought, but also to neo-colonial xenophobia and Islamophobic racism.

Perhaps the most compelling words come from those who, while opposing the veil itself out of a concern for women's dignity, also oppose its interdiction. Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi is quite aware that it is not only Muslim fundamentalists but French society at large that subjects devout Muslim women to invisibility, shame, and silence. She put it quite well in an interview with Le Monde in 2003:

“School is, above all, a place of freedom and emancipation for women. The fundamentalists would rather they not attend at all. So if they are chased from school for reasons of clothing – under the pretext, for instance, of the veil – the consequences will be disastrous. The fundamentalists will have won.”


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