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France’s Assimilation Challenge

3 minute read

Most political scientists will tell you there are two kinds of nationalism in the world: one is secular, as seen in the U.S., a robust civic pride that might be called patriotism. The second is religious, as seen in Israel or Iran, in which faith and nation are closely intertwined.

But there is a third kind of nationalism that is cultural. That’s France’s specialty. Let’s take the example of schools and what students can wear. In religious nationalist societies, religion dictates: women cover their heads in Iran, and many men wear yarmulkes in Israel. American students get sent home all the time for wearing political symbols, but what you almost never see are students sent home for wearing religious symbols. Freedom of religion is a constitutional right.

Not quite so in France. In the fall of 1989, three adolescent Muslim girls in the Parisian suburb of Creil were excited for their first day of middle school. But all three were sent home because they were wearing headscarves, known as foulards, that covered their hair. Thus l’affaire du foulard was born.

To understand the vehemence with which the French reacted to these girls, you have to understand the sacred nature of schools in France. Children don’t just learn math and reading at school–they learn how to be French. France is, after all, a country that practiced “assimilation” colonization, where their subjects learned to speak and become French, which the government promoted as the highest culture on earth. To the French, the rights of the few do not trump the standards of the many.

France utterly rejected the notion that being French could include women covering their heads. Enshrined in its laws is the concept of laïcité, or secularization. France moved to protect its culture and in the years since has, for the most part, banned Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to school. To level the playing field, it also banned Christian and Jewish symbols, including yarmulkes. Almost every year since, there have been French-Muslim protests to allow girls to wear foulards to school. The protests ebbed and flowed with the news: they found new life after the invasion of Iraq and have only grown since.

For immigrants in France, being on the wrong side of the culture war feeds a sense of not belonging–of unsuccessful assimilation–even when those immigrants are second or third generation. It was the sense of being robbed of their “roots” that set the Kouachi brothers down the destructive path toward al-Qaeda that would prove fatal for the employees of Charlie Hebdo.

A culture war is no excuse for the actual war that a small number of Muslim French citizens have launched on their own people. But the French method of assimilation by force–ban foulards, expel radical imams, speak French not Arabic–may be deepening the problem. “There has to be some nurturing, otherwise people feel like second-class citizens,” says Amel Boubekeur, a researcher on European Islamic issues at Grenoble University. “When you can’t speak to the mainstream, you withdraw from the mainstream.” Culture wars have no winners.

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