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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:23 GMT
Liberty, equality and the headscarf

Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent, Paris

French President Jacques Chirac has widespread popular support for the proposal to ban the wearing of religious symbols in state schools. And everyone knows that it is really about the Islamic headscarf.

Muslim girl in France
France has the largest Muslim population in the EU

I was sitting in a cafe with a friend, Antoine, soon after I'd arrived in Paris this June.

It was a glorious sunny summer's evening, and we sat outdoors to watch the world go by.

I live in the Marais, a gay and very touristy area, full of young men sauntering past in search of a good night out.

Two men in tight T-shirts, showing bulging biceps, walked past hand in hand, occasionally stopping to kiss one another affectionately.

"That's disgusting!" exclaimed Antoine, a middle-aged, rather conventional French businessman.

"What, the two men?" I asked.

"No, no, not them. Behind them, the two women."

I looked but I couldn't see anything amiss. All I saw were two young women, walking past chatting to one other.

Everyone here knows that the ruling isn't really about the wearing of a small cross on a chain, or even the Jewish skullcap

I turned to Antoine, mystified.

"The veils!" he exclaimed.

"Veils?" I asked.

"Yes, those headscarves," he said. "That shouldn't be allowed here in France."

I was utterly baffled.

Very 'un-French'

Antoine spent the next half hour explaining to me why he and most of his friends were horrified by the sight of women wearing what the French call "the veil" and others might call the "hijab" or Islamic headscarf.

It was degrading to women, he told me, and few of the women wearing it did so voluntarily.

They were forced, he said, by their families and by local Imams, who were teaching an increasingly fundamentalist form of Islam to France's Muslim community.

"That was never a problem with the first generation of Muslim immigrants in France, the Algerians and Moroccans who came and settled here in the 60s and 70s. They just wanted to fit in," Antoine told me.

Jacques Chirac
President Chirac referred to the headscarf, the skullcap and the cross

He explained that it was the second and third generation of French-born Muslims, many of whom live in the big city suburbs - effectively ghettoes - who seemed to him increasingly "un-French".

He said they were rejecting French values and French culture and identifying themselves with their co-religionists in other countries instead, even insisting on wearing the headscarf to school.

Muslim girls were clearly being oppressed by the headscarf. It was all very dangerous, and would lead to no good, said Antoine ominously.

Young targets

Those same thoughts were echoed rather more elegantly by the French President Jacques Chirac, as he announced to an appreciative audience at the Elysee Palace that all religious symbols would be banned from French state schools.

He cited liberty, equality, fraternity, and the need to keep France a secular state.

Yet everyone here knows that the ruling isn't really about the wearing of a small cross on a chain, or even the Jewish skullcap.

It is about the headscarf, and the visceral, almost incoherent rage it induces in even the most liberal of French.

But is that racism, or fear of the "other"?

Is it the fear of someone else's values slowly turning France into something more multi-cultural?

I can't make up my mind, and the French Muslim women I've spoken to all have radically differing views.

Unexpected support

Samira Bellil, a 30-year-old Algerian-born Frenchwoman is just as passionate as Antoine in her rejection of the hijab.

She has become involved in a Muslim women's campaign against the headscarf in schools.

Lycee Averroes: France's first private Muslim school
France's first private Muslim school has become very popular

She says girls are being pressurised to wear it, as much to protect themselves from the casual violence of the ghetto, as by their families or religious leaders.

Samira herself was raped not once but twice as a teenager in the Paris suburbs.

Her attackers were also Muslim.

Later, she was told by one classmate that she wouldn't have been attacked if she had been wearing the hijab instead of flaunting herself bare-headed.

It was that sort of attitude, Samira told me, that she was campaigning against.

It was the idea of women as objects, told what to do and how to dress by men.

She said that in Iran, men were obsessed with telling women to cover up while in France, they were equally obsessed with telling women to take things off

That, for her, is what the hijab symbolises.

She was delighted by Mr Chirac's speech, as was an Iranian friend of mine who laughed.

She said that in Iran, men were obsessed with telling women to cover up while in France, they were equally obsessed with telling women to take things off.

Human rights

But then I met Teychir Ben Niser - a 17-year-old French schoolgirl equally heated in her defence of the hijab.

In this land of liberty, she asked, how could France take away her right to express her belief that it was modest and right to cover her hair in public?

I've been left as confused and puzzled by the debate as many others watching France as it tries to work out what is best for its future as a nation.

Whether it likes it or not, France has become a multi-faith, if not yet a multicultural, country.

And it seems that the issue of the headscarf has, for the first time, opened up a real debate about the country's failure to integrate its biggest immigrant community.

This is a discussion that suddenly acquired a new and desperate urgency on September the 11th 2001.

Fragmented society

France's failure over the past 40 years or so has been to dump those immigrant families into high-rise ghettoes, where desperation over unemployment and poverty is boiling over into alienation.

A whole new generation of young people are choosing to reject French values, just as they feel France has rejected them.

Only now are politicians beginning to wake up and ask what has gone wrong.

How can France offer real equality to all, making it more than just a word inscribed on all the national public buildings?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 December, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

US concern over French scarf ban
19 Dec 03  |  Europe
Muslims urge calm over scarf law
18 Dec 03  |  Europe


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