The response of the French government and media to the death of Pope John Paul II has, among other things, exposed the utter hypocrisy of the campaign waged by the entire political establishment against the right of Muslim girls to wear head scarves in public schools. That reactionary crusade, waged in the name of “secularism,” culminated only a year ago in the enactment of a law banning head shawls from public places such as schools.
Political and media luminaries of the official left no less than the establishment right, from President Jacques Chirac to the leadership of the Socialist Party, waxed indignant that Muslim children were tarnishing the secularist traditions they claimed to hold dear. The presence of head scarves in the schools threatened to undermine the very foundations of the French Republic, they declared.
The secularist façade of the anti-Muslim campaign was buttressed by an appeal to feminist sentiment. In making it a crime for Muslim girls to observe the strictures of their religion, the opponents of the shawl claimed to be waging a struggle against the oppression of women, symbolised by the head scarf. This feminist angle provided a further rationale for the opportunists of the “far left,” including Lutte Ouvrière and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, to join the government crusade, lending credibility to the absurd and reactionary notion that women’s rights can be secured by repressive laws against particular religious observances.
That this campaign dovetailed with the attack on all things Muslim by the far right not only in France, but throughout Europe, was conveniently ignored. So too was the longstanding special treatment extended by the French Republic to the Catholic Church.
Reality was stood on its head, as the democratic and secularist principle of freedom of thought and expression, including religious observance, was trampled on—in the name of democracy and secularism! With this law, moreover, the state established an ominous precedent, arrogating to itself the right to intervene in the most personal and private affairs of individuals.
But that was last year, and those were Muslims. When his Roman Catholic holiness Pope John Paul II expired earlier this month, President Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin jumped at the chance to sprinkle republican water over the corpse.
Chirac and Raffarin, accompanied by wives and government ministers, attended mass at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral to honour the pontiff. Raffarin declared, “The government solemnly associates itself with the homage paid to Pope Jean Paul II.” National flags on public buildings, including public schools, were ordered to be flown at half-mast; prefects were required to “attend funeral services ... in memory of His Holiness,” and urged to “pay a visit of condolence to the bishop.” TV commentators repeatedly referred to the pope as “the Holy Father”.
No attempt was made to square this genuflection before the Church with the previous crusade for “secularism”. Why should there be, since everyone “who matters” already knew that yesterday’s proclamations in defence of secularism had been thoroughly disingenuous? Even before the pope’s demise, leading figures in and around the government had gone out of their way to flaunt their Catholic convictions. Former finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, demonstratively made the sign of the cross at a public boat launching.
Nor were there significant protests from the Socialist Party camp, which only months before was vociferously denouncing the religious poison being injected into the body politic by scarf-bearing girls.
There were protests from some quarters, including those who pointed to the glaring contradiction between the glorification of the pope and the ban on Muslim head scarves. The FCPE (Federation of Councils of Parents of Pupils), one of the two main parents’ associations, issued a press statement on April 4, which declared: “A year after the promulgation of the March 2004 law on the wearing of religious signs in primary and secondary schools, secular activists are aghast at the media deluge which anticipated—often in an indecent manner—then accompanied the death of the pope, and this especially in the state broadcasting services... What is the significance, in particular, of the exceptional flying of the flag at half-mast at the front of the schools? How will young people interpret this double-standard secularism that bans the wearing of the veil, but authorizes political and media excesses in relationship to the death of the pope?”
The magazine of the main secondary school teachers union, the SNES (National Union of Secondary Education), asked: “How, when the government obliges collèges and lycées to fly flags at half-mast a year after passing the law banning pupils from wearing religious signs, can one not see a provocation in giving signs of allegiance to one religion?”
TV and radio stations and the press received large amounts of correspondence criticising the nature and volume of their coverage. The daily Libération reported “an avalanche of emails and letters” of complaint.
If the law banning the head scarf was not motivated by secular principles, then what was it really about? It was a discriminatory attack on the poorest and most oppressed sections of French society. The entire campaign for the law was a deliberate diversion from the growing social crisis in France, whose working population faces mass unemployment, falling living standards, and a government assault on the welfare state.
The law has exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions and facilitated increased state repression. To date, 47 girls have been excluded from their schools. Some 550 have been pressured into removing their head scarves, and many hundreds have chosen to leave school and attempt to complete their education through correspondence courses. Some, for which there are no statistics, have just given up. Three Sikh boys have also been excluded from school for insisting on covering their hair.
Mothers wearing the veil have been prevented from accompanying children on school trips. Veiled women have been banned from public buildings, and their right to work in public and even private enterprises has increasingly been challenged.
Such attacks, needless to say, only encourage religious backwardness, along with intolerance and bigotry.