A ban on religious symbols in schools shows how differently France and the U.S. think about religion and pluralism

France’s new dress code: a ban on religious symbols in schools shows how differently France and the U.S. think about religion and pluralism

Elaine Sciolino

For weeks this winter, a French proposal to forbid most religious symbols in public schools, including the head scarves and veils worn by many Muslim girls, attracted heavy media attention and led to large street protests. In March, the French Parliament enacted the bah, and it will take effect before the new school year begins in September.

Although the impetus for the law was the increasing number of Muslim schoolgirls covering their heads, President Jacques Chirac and his ministers have said that crosses that are deemed too large and Jewish skullcaps will also be prohibited.

The debate has little to do with the usual reasons for school dress codes and much to do with France’s efforts to come to grips with Islam. Muslim immigrants, many from North Africa, began arriving during the 1960s and 1970s and now number 5 million, about 8 percent of the population.


In France, Muslim practices are often cast as a challenge to Christianity, but in many ways they challenge another religion entirely: the unofficial French creed of secularism, and the French state’s historical impulse to impose its republican value system on its citizens.

The secularist creed dates to the French Revolution in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy and the aristocracy but also overturned the historic dominance of the Catholic Church, until then a pillar of French society.

In contrast to pluralist societies like the United States that try to accept or celebrate cultural differences, the French ideal envisions a uniform, secularized French identity as the best guarantor of national unity and the separation of church and state.

Now, a small but determined minority of France’s Muslims has begun to challenge that ideal. They are calling for sex segregated gym classes for girls and prayer breaks during exams. Teachers have complained that hostility from Muslim students toward Israel has made it impossible to teach about the Holocaust. Some Muslim men won’t allow their wives or daughters to be treated by male doctors.

Islam’s visibility in France is striking. Because of a shortage of mosque space, thousands of Muslims pray on sidewalks and in the streets outside their places of worship. While people here have grudgingly accepted a growing Muslim presence in their midst, many still resent displays of religious and cultural symbols.

But the Muslim presence has also been felt in recent criminal behavior. A young Arab-Muslim underclass is blamed for anti-Semitic acts that have included attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses and schools and the yelling of racial slurs in public.

In this atmosphere, the new dress-code law, which bans all but “discreet” religious symbols, is an effort to draw a line against any further demands.


In 1905, France codified the separation of church and state in the law of laicite, of secularism. But contradictions remain. For example, seven of France’s 11 national holidays celebrate Catholic events.

Underscoring the inconsistencies, private Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish schools, which would be exempt from the law banning religious symbols, receive direct state financing–something that in the United States would likely be seen as a violation of the tradition of separation of church and state.

Some Muslim leaders have pledged to create Muslim schools throughout France, meaning the state could find itself financing schools where the head scarf is the norm.

Many of France’s Muslims live with few opportunities for economic advancement in enclaves in Paris and other cities. The commission that studied the issue of religious symbols urged the government to create Arabic language programs in schools and to eradicate “urban ghettos.”

Critics say the government ignored larger problems in favor of arguments about headscarves and the like. “The political response is absurd and laughable,” the historian Rene Remond told Le Monde, a Paris newspaper. “It feeds the illusion that all we have to do to solve the problem of integration is to vote through a law.”


* Many U.S. communities have banned religious displays, such as nativity scenes on public property. Is this similar to or different from France’s ban on religious symbols in public schools?

* The new law bans all but “discreet” religious symbols. How would you define a discreet religious symbol?


To help students understand the historical, cultural, and political forces behind France’s decision to ban most religious symbols from public schools.


BEFORE READING: Assign one student to read aloud the first two clauses of the First Amendment. Remind students that the Amendment both prohibits an official state religion and allows people to practice any religion they wish. Tell them to keep the Amendment in mind as they read the article.

WEIGHT OF HISTORY: Emphasize that the head-scarf debate is not just a dress-code issue. Remind students that French history is at the root of today’s scarf debate. Note that “secularism as a creed” emerged from the overturning of the Catholic Church’s domination of society after the French Revolution in 1789. How is France’s secularism similar to of different from the protections provided to Americans in the First Amendment? Refer to the 1905 law of laicite and tell students that the 1946 constitution declared France “an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social republic.”

CRITICAL THINKING/WRITING: Some Muslim leaders pledge to open Muslim schools throughout France, possibly making them eligible for state funding in the same manner as private Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant schools. Would funding schools where the head scarf is allowed violate France’s commitment to secularism? Has the government already violated its own secular doctrine by providing funding for religious schools?

Tell students that wearing religious symbols that are not “of manifestly excessive dimensions” would be permitted. Ask students to write two letters to Le Monde, one challenging these exemptions and one supporting them.

FAST FACTS: Belgium has introduced a bill that would bar students and government employees from wearing religious garb in schools and offices. Some German states are also considering such bills. And there is controversy in the European Union over whether to use the word “God” in a new constitution.

Upfront QUIZ 2

DIRECTIONS: Circle letter next to the best answer.

1. France, historically a Catholic country, has banned the wearing of religious garb in public schools. However, the ban does not extend to

a religious symbols that are not overly large.

b religious collars.

c turbans worn by Indian Sikhs.

d religious clothing worn by foreign teachers.

2. France wants to curb the influence of Muslims, many of whom arrived in the 1960s and 1970s from

a India.

b Asia.

c North Africa.

d Central Africa.

3. The French commitment to secularism dates to

a World War II.

b World War I.

c the late 19th century.

d the French Revolution in 1789.

4. The French believe secularism is the best way to guarantee

a the future of the Catholic Church.

b friendly relations with their neighbors in Europe.

c national unity and separation of church and state.

d that they will not become targets for Middle East terrorists.

5. There are inconsistencies in France’s secular strategy. The article specifically mentions

a trade with Islamic nations.

b state funding for private religious schools.

c freedom of religion.

d diplomatic relations with Vatican City (The Holy See).

6. Some leaders of the Muslim community in France who object to the ban on religious garb say they will

a speak out against the ban at the United Nations.

b ask for help from fellow Muslims in the Middle East.

c build Muslim schools throughout the country.

d refuse to send their children to school.


1. (a) religious symbols that are not overly large.

2. (c) North Africa.

3. (d) the French Revolution of 1789.

4. (e) national unity and separation of church and state.

5. (b) state funding for private religious schools.

6. (c) build Muslim schools.

Elaine Sciolino is the Paris bureau chief of The New York Times.

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