CTR Rings to be Banned in France?

December 17, 2003 | 9 comments
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As though Americans needed more evidence of the absurdity of France’s government, today Chirac proposed a law to ban students from wearing religious tokens in school. Chirac thinks this is a moral battle — his conscience leads him to prohibit Jewish boys from wearing yarmulkes at school: “In all conscience, I believe that the wearing of dress or symbols that conspicuously show religious affiliation should be banned in schools.”

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9 Responses to CTR Rings to be Banned in France?

  1. Adam Greenwood on December 17, 2003 at 11:37 pm

    Help! I just don’t understand the reasoning here. Any europhiles out there who can explain this to me at least enough for me to disagree with it?

  2. Jim on December 18, 2003 at 2:07 am

    Since I am in general not only a Europhile, but a Francophile–though definitely not a Chiracophile—let me take a stab at explaining what’s going on. But I should begin by saying that though, unlike Matt, I don’t think it is obvious that the French government is absurd (in fact, I think the claim that it is absurd it itself absurd on the face of it), this is a position the French government has been heading toward for some time, and it is an absurd position even if I can understand how it came about. (How’s that for a convoluted sentence?) So, let me see if I can explain the reasoning behind what I take to be, ultimately, an absurd position.

    The separation of church and state has been extremely important to the French since the Revolution, and they had a lot more reason to be concerned about it than we did. In spite of their distaste for each other, the French monarchy and the Catholic Church got in bed together to oppress the French people. The extreme anti-Catholic actions of the revolutionaries weren’t just expressions of what Americans think of as French craziness. They were responses to real concerns. Contemporary French have inherited this concern about church and state and it is an important factor in Chirac’s announcement (which as I understand it is support for a proposed law, not a proposal itself). The French are insistent that all aspects of government, including schools, remain absolutely secular. Like the bureaucracy, they believe, that is essential to maintaining a democracy. (Bureaucracy is essential because it supposedly makes it difficult for any citizen to receive preferential treatment from the government. The facelessness of the bureaucracy is its virtue.)

    A second factor behind the proposal of this law is the anti-cult movement. Though the anti-cultists hit the U.S. in the seventies and then pretty much disappeared, they disappeared by moving abroad. They are still very active in Europe where they have tried, with some success, to have various churches banned or at least discriminated against in taxation laws, their ability to proselyte, etc. Depending on where you are, those churches include the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists as well as Unificationists and Scientologists. So far the Mormons have avoided the problem, but often just barely. (In France we avoided the problem because we have had a ward or branch in Paris continuously since about 1850, making us an established religion rather than a “new” one.) The propaganda of the anti-cultists has been abetted by the fact that French culture, like most European cultures but more so, is very secular and, so, already disposed to think of all religion as slightly nutty, but especially unusual religions. Several very publicized mass suicides in France, Canada, and the U.S. by those in “cults” hasn’t helped that perception. In most French minds, anything that isn’t Catholic or pretty standard Protestant is a bit scary. Though Muslims aren’t considered a cult officially, I believe that the fear-mongering of the anti-cultists has contributed to French concerns about Muslims.

    The fear of Muslims has two parts, the third and fourth factors: The third factor is a legitimate fear of fundamentalist Islam. There are a lot of Muslims in France and a lot of them are more than a little unhappy with their lot, making them ripe for fundamentalist picking. France has had problems with Islamic terrorists of various sorts for a long time now and they have good reason to fear that fundamentalists will reopen terrorism. Muslim women wearing scarves is on the increase. In fact, those wearing the full chador is on the increase. That increase suggests that Muslims are becoming more strict, and that suggestion raises the fear of fundamentalism and fundamentalist terror.

    The fourth factor is French racism. There is quite a bit of anti-Arab sentiment in France and Arabs are almost universally assumed to be Muslims and vice-versa. Almost no French person will admit that there is racism in France; racism is something that Americans are guilty of. Nevertheless, I have seen it over and over again, and French Arabs/Muslims will tell you it is quite real.

    No one of these explains the proposed law, but put them together and it is a natural result. For several years many schools and some cities have forbidden the scarves under various pretexts, but they have lost their cases in court because such rules apply only to Muslims. This law intends to deal with that problem by forbidding all religious symbols. The rationale is that the school is an arm of the secular state and, so, should not be a place in which one proselytes, makes religious arguments, etc. They see scarf-wearing as a way of desecularizing the schools to some extent and they are trying to fight that. So, they don’t really see any harm in yarmulkes or crosses. (Students would still be able to wear crosses, but they must be small; I assume they would also be able to wear small stars of David.) But they don’t see anyway to stop the scarf-wearing without being consistent and banning other religious tokens as well.

    Why is Chirac backing the proposed law? Because he wants to get re-elected and he thinks this will help.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on December 18, 2003 at 2:16 am

    Jim, thanks for that bit of historical and cultural background; a lot of it I was familiar with, but the influence of anti-cult movements in France was new to me.

    For what it’s worth, I put on my political theorist hat and explore the decision (from my usual communitarian perspective) over at my own blog here: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2003_12_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#107172629252056828. Bottom line: I’m sympathetic to (some of) this policy’s means on a theoretical level (though I distrust this particular application of them). As for the policy’s ends, I think they’re entirely wrong.

  4. Nate on December 18, 2003 at 11:57 am

    Thanks to Jim. I had read about French anti-cult laws and their Muslim issues, but I hadn’t thought about the link to the anti-Catholicism of the French Revolution. Looking at Chirac’s comments, however, you can see all the rhetorical traces there — “sons and daughters of the republic.”

    It stuck me that this was a rather blatently anti-Arab move meant to take the wind out of La Pen’s sails in the next election. I was shocked to see how far Chirac’s popularity has plummetted. (From 70% to 40%).

    To the extent that this law is meant to diffues Muslim fundementalism it is utterly stupid. One might even say absurd on its face. No Arab flirting with fundementalism is going to say, “Well now that the state has passed laws to punish Muslim school girls for wearing veils, I am convinced that becoming a second-class citizen in the secular and crypto-racist French state is the way to go!” You are simply going to make marytrs out of Muslim kids and fuel Arab resentment.

    I wonder also, if there might be a fifth factor at work. Is there something in French political culture that sees public symbols as being a fit subject for legislation. By public, I don’t mean “state.” Rather, I am thinking of something like the Academy Francais, or the attempts of the French Revolutionaries to remake the calander and the week on metric lines. These are the sorts of culture manipulation by the state that seem quite strange to American political culture. It seems to me that the idea of the government attempting to define the meaning of — and ban — a particular social symbol could be part of this. Obviously, I don’t want to make too much of this difference. After all, we have anti-cross burning statutes and the like in this country, but here they are seen as being a major free speech issue. I don’t think that they would be in France (or most of Europe for that matter).

  5. Kaimi on December 18, 2003 at 12:47 pm

    According to the Times today, the proposal would only ban “conspicuous” religious symbols and would not affect “discreet” ones. I don’t think it is clear on the face of it that this change will affect CTR rings at all.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on December 18, 2003 at 12:56 pm

    Nate,

    “These are the sorts of culture manipulation by the state that seem quite strange to American political culture. It seems to me that the idea of the government attempting to define the meaning of — and ban — a particular social symbol could be part of this.”

    I think the key here is that France has a history–as all of Western Europe does (and Great Britain, though in a much more contested sense)–of religious establishment. To see the state as in some ways tied to the spiritual welfare of the people (that “statecraft” is also “soulcraft” as many people have put it), makes it possible to think about the state’s rightful participation in determinations of the symbolic ordering appropriate to a people (even if the spiritual substance of that ordering is wholly denied, as is the case in France today). America’s symbolic (meaning mostly religious) order(s), by contrast, were never creatures of establishment (at least not at the federal level), and thus have been long understood to have a far, far more minimal relationship to our collective political life. (Which is why, as I see it, when someone actually complains about, say, the motto “In God We Trust” or the phrase “under God,” we end up talking the issue wholly inappropriate First Amendment-type terms. There is something (not much, but still something) to be said for establishment, if only for the sake of clarity.)

    This is not to defend France: I think the particular order they’ve wedded themselves to is a poor one, and moreover that their strategy for achieving it is (probably) foolish. But, like Jim, I can appreciate and even sympathize with how they’re framing the problem.

  7. Nate on December 18, 2003 at 12:58 pm

    I figured you migh ;->. Your point about establishment is well taken…

  8. Jim on December 20, 2003 at 3:27 pm

    Here’s a NY Times editorial that takes a reasonable stance regarding the law and points out, as Nate already did, that the law is highly unlikely to have its desired effect: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/20/opinion/20SAT3.html?th

  9. Renee on December 21, 2003 at 8:23 pm

    It is unfortunate move by Chirac and screams ignorance. The Muslim scarf on a woman is considered part of modest dress. This is not unique to Muslims. The Amish and some Mennonite women wear either full bonnets or in the case of the latter, a small covering pinned on.

    I would be in a strange quandary if my employer required sleeveless dresses.

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