Hermès, as you recall, was the messenger of the gods. And what he told the French, apparently, was that they should wear really expensive silk scarves on their heads to indicate their sensitivity to fashion and as an indicator of their wealth. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that today most French politicians and journalists truly believe that the most pressing social issue of the moment has to do with whether or not girls should be allowed to go to school with their heads covered.
The problem, of course, is the statement behind the fashion, and how that statement violates the sense of secular propriety that governs one of the key French myths of their république. If a Muslim girl’s scarf-statement is a reflection of obedience to fashion, there is no problem here, monsieur. But if her taste in headwear is so lousy that the scarf-statement suggests proselytism of the religious sort, there is a very large problem.
When my daughters first attended a French public school, they mistakenly wore their little silver Orthodox crosses over their sweaters. They were promptly instructed to hide them, lest the children on the playground be seized with a need to return to the Julian calendar. It is acceptable in the secular state to send a girl to school looking like a hooker, because that doesn’t affect the spiritual conviction of teenage boys–and besides hookers aren’t nuns. But there is a great fear here that if you send your Muslim daughter to school looking like a character from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, it will drive others to fall on their knees before Allah.
The problem of Islamic girls wearing scarves to school and Islamic women wearing scarves to work has been simmering here for many years. It’s not the head covering that’s the problem, of course. It’s what’s in the head being covered. Chirac’s declaration, reported not long ago in the Guardian, that “there is something aggressive” about the Muslim veil, and the predictable feminist view, expressed in an open letter from prominent Frenchwomen urging a ban on headscarves because they represent the submission of women, published in Elle and reprinted here in Le Monde, pretty much reflects the view of the issue from the right and from the left. It was clear that something must be done.
What was done was to appoint a government commission to investigate the headscarf issue and tell the president of the republic what should be done about it. The report was issued this week. The unfortunately named Stasi (after Bernard Stasi, the chairman) Commission’s recommendations were given saturation coverage in Le Monde, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur, Figaro, on French TV and on radio. The story drowned out every other issue normally preoccupying the French media, including Johnny Halliday. Even the Bush administration’s decision to not send U.S. taxpayer money to French corporations was swamped in the reportage devoted to the way Islamic schoolgirls dress.
The reason for this fascination is obvious–and a perfect example of how the French attack a critical, complex social issue by focusing on the most superficial aspect of it. The real problems associated with the rampant Islamification of the French state won’t be solved by issuing a dress code: In French hospitals, Le Monde reported, female Muslim patients refuse to be examined by male doctors, and the corridors are turned into crowded prayer halls. There’s a problem with overtly Muslim jurors and with Muslim defendents, who claim their trials are unfair because the judge is a Jew. Crime is rampant and the public, the media, the politicians, even the authors of the Stasi report itself (reprinted in a .pdf file here in its entirety by Le Monde) all know who is responsible. The large minority of Frenchmen–although not all have citizenship–who perpetrate hate crimes against the French Republic are frequently “disaffected” Arabs, mostly from North Africa. They despise America, Jews and, unfortunately for the French, France itself. They are responsible for the rapid escalation of anti-Semitism in France. The once-suppressed EU report on European anti-Semitism said as much, and there aren’t many Frenchmen who would deny it. Hence, the chauvinistic Le Pen’s popularity, according to this Guardian report, continues to soar: 22 percent of French voters support him, which means he would still give the Socialists and the other parties on the left hell in an election. (Wait. It wasn’t too long ago that every nationalist politician in France was fighting for all of Algeria to become part of France, if I recall.) Nicholas Sarkozy, the popular and efficient interior minister, and perhaps the only French politician willing to call a Muslim a Muslim, has been diligent in keeping social unrest under control, but it’s an uphill struggle.
Before his tenure, the figures were really ugly: In 1999 crime in France was worse than in the U.S. By 2001, crime had increased 7.2 percent over 2000’s figures; murders and attempted murders were up 35 percent; sexual assaults increased 40 percent; pick-pocketing on the Metro was up 38 percent. In 2002 there were violent clashes in Paris following Le Pen’s electoral surprise; on Bastille Day, Chirac survived an assassination attempt; and last October, the mayor of Paris, Betrand Delanoe, was stabbed during an all-night rave he had organized called “Nuit Blanche.” Not a small percentage of this can be laid at the feet of fanatical and angry French Muslims.
The Stasi Commission’s report comes out against this backdrop of violence and racial tension, and at a time when the French concept of laïcité–formulated in a 1905 statute that was meant to resolve a church-state conflict, but failed to do so–is still being defined. Since at least 1989, when some Muslim girls were expelled from a school in the Paris suburb of Creteil for refusing to take off their scarves, the French have been struggling with problems that come from what happens when an ill-defined concept is fashioned into statutory art. Often, implementation of secularism has come down to an individual teacher or headmaster, like the poor atheist dad in all those Pagnol stories. That kind of arbitrary enforcement didn’t do much for “racial relations.” (Neither will the recent decision by the government to give French students a more accurate picture of the Holocaust, as reported in Le Nouvel Observateur.)
The Stasi report will, it is hoped, resolve all these difficult issues by making “aggressive” displays of religious conviction illegal, while still allowing small items of jewelry to be worn. This will have absolutely no effect on the larger, more difficult issues concerning Islamification, anti-Semitism and French political cowardice. But in France, some cheese is better than no cheese at all. So the papers are heralding the report as if it were divine writ. Libération’s headline today: “Les sages disent oui à une loi sur le voile.” In Le Monde, the joyous religious fervor of the secularists is on display, especially in this item, expressing the deeply felt faith of the authors (all liberal intellectuals–or whatever passes for such a thing in modern France) in the holiness of the secular state, and explaining that only the ideals of the république stand between Frenchmen and the barbarism of people with mainstream religious convictions. Elsewhere, the paper celebrates the noble, “intriguing” uniqueness of the French character–something Sadie Stein does better in this brilliant squib from Agora about the Beaujolais fetish, in which the French celebrate the annual arrival of that truly undrinkable plonk.
Meanwhile, if you want to buy milk or bread or Beaujolais on a Sunday in France, you’d better hightail it to a less secular place, because in France, Sunday is the day of rest and the stores are all shut tight.
You can look it up on your little French calendar, in which every week ends with the Lord’s Day and in which every single day is labeled with the name of a Catholic saint. And those small crosses my barbaric daughters wear? They will be okay–provided they aren’t use to theologically blind those around them–just as a tiny Magen David will be permissible around the neck of a state-threatening Jew. But no yarmulkes, no “big” crosses, and no scarves allowed. Gay-pride buttons? Go for it. Bellybuttons? Dude!
Weasels need not apply. The decision by the Bush administration not to send American taxpayers’ money to nations that actively militated against American policy in Iraq produced the predictable Euro-squeal, more from Germany, where the focus is on economic problems, than from France, where schoolgirls’ scarves were the headline item of the week (see above). Le Monde declared the decision to be an embarrassment to Bush, while Libération saw it coming. But in the German press, including Der Speigel (here) and Die Welt (here), as well as in the EU Observer (here), there was widespread astonishment that a) Bush would actually laugh off Schroeder’s protests–then b) send James Baker to Europe to tell the French, Germans, and Russians that their Iraqi debts were the biggest joke of all. The Suddeutsche Zeitung reported that the Oldopeans would take their complaint to the WTO.
Did she say “contraception”? The insistence by a French-Vietnamese woman that her unborn child had a right to become a French person threatens to throw the EU’s abortion laws into confusion. When a woman in a Lyons hospital found herself unable to communicate with a doctor who proceeded to terminate her pregnancy very much against her wishes, she sued on behalf of the dead child. A French court threw out her case, according to this BBC report, because the court figured the baby wasn’t a human being protected by law and could therefore be killed with impunity. The woman has taken her case to the European Court, a development that has Anne Weyman, of Britain’s Family Planning Association, alarmed. Her concern if the case goes against the doctor? “The implications would be that all methods of contraception apart from barrier and natural family planning could be affected.”
The spirit of ‘39. The Poles, among others, are for some reason reluctant to let the Germans roll over them as part of the price they must pay to join the EU, or whatever the Franco-German alliance is called. As a result, according to this report in The Guardian, the prospects for an approval of the EU constitution appear to be dim. The IHT claims a happy result from this weekend’s EU summit would be a miracle. No matter. According to this story in Libération, the constitution’s leading light, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has become immortal. Like Caligula’s horse.
–Denis Boyles is an NRO contributor.