The wearing of a scarf by Muslim girls at French schools has been an ongoing topic of controversy since the 1980s. But the situation has gained new intensity in October, after two Muslim girls were barred from going back to (government) school because they refused to remove their scarves.
There have been many articles and TV shows in France related to the case. The case raises again the issue of legal regulations regarding the use of religious symbols in French public schools. Currently, the situation may be different from one school to another, since the decision is left to the local school authorities, following a legal decision in 1989.
The issue revolves around the question of whether the scarf (or any religious symbol) is “ostentatious” or is used for the purpose of “proselytizing.” There are different ways to apply those rules. A report in the daily La Voix du Nord (Oct. 23) showed that principals in the same city in Northern France accepted the scarf under certain conditions in one school and refused it as a matter of principle in another one. Support for girls who want to wear the scarf is practically non existent in the political class, since most French politicians tend to associate it with fundamentalism. Moreover, even among believers among politicians, the principle of state secularism is more or less unanimously accepted.
Some politicians believe a law might be needed in order to ban “ostentatious religious signs” in schools, reports Le Figaro (October. 28). Others fear a law might make Muslims feel targeted, leading them to open separate schools. Justice Minister Dominique Perben suggested that the fact that the two girls were expelled from the school clearly showed that it was possible to act without a law. In addition, according to monitoring by French intelligence agencies, the number of Muslim girls who want to wear the scarf at schools is said to have decreased over the past ten years and to be down to a few hundred cases every year.
In no other Western European country has the scarf issue at school created such controversy. It is related both to mixed reactions in France toward a large and growing Muslim presence, and to the complex legacy of sometimes heated church-state issues since the French Revolution. The Muslim factor has become one element in a debate on the future place and role of religion in French secular society.
— By Jean-François Mayer