Chirac Calls for Ban on Headscarves

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Chirac Calls for Ban on Headscarves

News article

By: News Service

Date: December 17, 2003

Source: CBC News. "Chirac Calls for Ban on Headscarves." December 17, 2003. 〈〉 (accessed April 20, 2006).

About the Author: The Canadian Broadcasting Company, Canada's premier news source, was created by an Act of Parliament in 1936. CBC operations include radio, television, and Internet news services.


France is home to Europe's largest Muslim population; at least five million people—approximately 8-9 percent of the country's 60 million inhabitants. As an openly secular country, France's 1789 Constitution established freedom of religion. In 1905, France added a law that strictly separates church and state. This policy of laïcité requires neutrality from the government in all religious affairs; this extends to public schools, all government institutions, and even to political statements made by politicians. Religion, in French culture, is treated as a private matter.

For nearly two decades, the issue of headscarves worn by female Muslims has been debated in French society. Religious symbols such as the cross and yarmulke had been tolerated in public schools and by government institutions, as long as the display of faith was modest and did not overtly violate separation of church and state. As the Muslim population increased in France and more young women entered schools wearing headscarves, this highly visible mode of religious expression became a subject of contention. Throughout the 1990s, the Ministry of Education turned to the Council of State to rule on numerous individual cases involving Muslim girls and head-scarves. France had no federal law to deal with such cases.

Muslims claim that forbidding the headscarves violates freedom of religion for schoolgirls, makes them the target of ridicule and anger by fellow Muslims who accuse them of shirking their religion, and that the scarves are not inherently a tool for proselytizing or religious militancy. On the other side of the debate, President Jacques Chirac has argued that "Wearing a veil, whether we want it or not, is a sort of aggression that is difficult for us to accept." In addition, some public school teachers claim that the scarves are prominent and interfere with educational religious neutrality in the classroom, while some feminists argue that the head covering, with roots in the idea that women must cover themselves to thwart male advances, stands out as a symbol of female oppression.

In 2003, French President Jacques Chirac called for an investigation into the issue.


PARIS—French President Jacques Chirac wants to shore up the country's secular tradition by banning religious symbols from public schools, a move that some believe will stigmatize Muslims by forcing girls to take off their headscarves.

Chirac asked the French parliament to introduce a law, following the recommendations issued by a presidential panel last week.

The 20-person panel, struck to look into the issue of secularism, said all ostentatious displays of religion or political affiliation should be banned from public buildings.

Warning that "fanaticism is gaining ground" in the country, Chirac said he also wanted to clear the way for businesses to impose similar bans.

"Secularism is one of the great successes of the Republic," Chirac said in an address to the nation. "It is a crucial element of social peace and national cohesion. We cannot let it weaken."

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe—five million people.

Many in France see the headscarf as a symbol of Muslim militancy.

Many Muslims see the headscarf as a mark of modesty and a symbol of their Islamic identity. They oppose a ban, calling it a discriminatory violation of their rights.

The ban, which Chirac wants in place for the start of the next school year in the fall of 2004, would also ban Jewish yarmulkes and large crucifixes.

The law is expected to have enough support from both sides of the political spectrum to pass the French parliament.

Chirac also asked for a law that would prevent patients in public hospitals from refusing treatment because of the gender of the treating physician or medical personnel. The panel's report included accounts of Muslim men refusing to let male doctors treat their wives.

The commission recommended that the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and the Muslim Eid el-Kabir feast be made school holidays. Chirac rejected that.


According to 2004 surveys, more than sixty-nine percent of the French population (including more than forty percent of Muslims) support the prohibition of headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols from classrooms. There were no Muslim members of Parliament at the time of the law's passage; Muslim critics note that this lack of representation meant that religious voices and perspectives were not taken into account in the creation of such legislation.

As Chirac notes above, "Secularism is one of the great successes of the Republic": proponents of the legislation state that Muslim political representation in Parliament is a private matter; a legislator's religion should not affect state policy or law. In addition to the argument that church and state should remain separate, the ban on overt religious symbols, according to proponents, also protects minors from pressure to follow a particular religion, be it endorsed by a teacher or a fellow classmate.

The debate over the law sparked protests in France, with thousands taking to the streets on February 14, 2004. Chirac signed the law on March 15, 2004, to take effect on September 2, 2004, the beginning of the French school year. In August 2004, two French citizens, Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot, were taken hostage in Iraq and held by Muslim kidnappers. The hostage-takers demanded the repeal of the new law; Chirac refused to comply, and the hostages were later released alive.

The law went into effect on September 2, 2004, as planned. While a few hundred reports of violations of the law involving Muslim girls wearing headscarves were logged in the first few weeks, the overwhelming support of the French public, including forty-nine percent of French Muslim women, led to a fairly quiet acceptance of the new law.



Cesari, Jocelyne. When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Klausen, Jytte. The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2005.

Lumbard, Joseph. Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars (Perennial Philosophy Series). Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2004.

Web sites

BBC News. "Islam Tests French Secularism." December 8, 2005. 〈〉 (accessed April 20, 2006).