Outside of schools all over this country--high schools, junior highs, elementary schools, perhaps even kindergartens and daycares--at 8 or 9 am, Muslims girls pause before entering campuses to remove their veils. They stuff the veils into their backpacks, their purses, or bags, and then walk into school. Since 2004, when the French people banned public displays of religious affiliation within state-run schools, the Muslim hijab, the Jewish star of David, and the Christian crucifix have been missing from the heads and throats of France's children.
The 2004 ban was an extension (or implementation) of the French policy of "laicite"--the fancy French word meaning that France is a secular state. The separation of Church (or mosque or synagogue or temple) and State is a relatively universal concept in Democracies across the world, and we ourselves are quite familiar with the practice in our own public schools in America. What I cannot grow accustomed to is the image of a Muslim girl standing outside the Lycee where I live, removing her veil before she is allowed to enter her school. To me, this seems to violate the concept of religious freedom, and to be a blatantly racist move on the French government's part.
While it is true that the ban extends to all religious symbols, I have a nasty hunch that it was put in place mainly to target the growing Muslim population in France. You might not see French Christians at the Lycee sporting pink "Jesus is my Homeboy" T-shirts (as you certainly did at good old BHS, God save my Alma Mater) but there are no inspections for tiny crucifixes on the students' necks at the gates of schools across France. And I highly doubt that if a teacher noticed, by chance, a student wearing a crucifix there would be any consequence or uproar. The problem with the "laique Republique" and the religious symbols ban in school is that the Muslim population is arguably the only religious group that sports outward symbols of their faith (although yamikas are required by some Orthodox Jews, there are very few in France, and most Jewish males are only required to wear them in Temple, if I am not mistaken) (also, have you ever noticed how strikingly similar the word yamika is to Yakima?), and thus the law automatically targets that one religious group. I don't know about France, but that almost fits the definition of discrimination to a T in the U.S., and would provide a basis for the entire Muslim population to sue the government for violations of religious freedom.
I became even more adamant in my views that this ban and this practice in France is not just a fair and equal implementation of France's insistence on secularity early on in my stay in France, when I read an article in a magazine where the French equivalent of the Minister of Education (do we have that in America, or are my British friends and their funny ways rubbing off on me? The other day I told Ian my stomach was feeling a bit dodgy.....) defended laicite in public schools, stating that the Muslim veil will not be allowed in France's public schools because it is a sexist tradition, and a symbol of discrimination within the Muslim faith. This doesn't sound like a statement merely defending laicite, citing the need for an overall need for the separation of religion and government. It sounds racist. And cruel.
No matter what the Western world thinks of the hijab, an individual as highly placed as the French Minister of Education has no place making such a blanket statement about a religion and tradition he knows nothing about. I can't imagine the uproar if George Bush, or even the beloved Barack Obama, were to denounce the Muslim faith in the name of secularity in such a way as this French official has. No, we aren't allowed to pray in class, our teachers can't instruct us on Baby Jesus or Mohammed, but Muslim girls are not obliged to remove their veils under the pretext of laicite (but really for far more racist reasons).
I think that in Perpignan, in the south (and of course in the banlieues in Paris) the discontent with laicite, with Sarkozy, and with the Republique in general is far more pronounced. The last and fourth word tacked onto the timeless French slogan of "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" (liberty, equality, brotherhood/fraternity), in this mural in one of the schools where I teach
seems to contradict at least one, if not all, of the preceding words. Indeed, I found this graffiti scrawled underneath the three-word slogan sign outside an elementary school in Perpignan (the phrase is either in slang French or in Catalan. As I don't really speak either, I don't know, but I can figure out the gist of the proclamation):
It reads: She (meaning France) betrays these principles.