Collateral damage from French headscarf law continues

December 16, 2008

When French President Jacques Chirac ‘s government wanted to ban Muslim headscarves in state schools back in 2004, it had to find a way to (1) make the ban look fair and (2) avoid a backlash from the majority Catholic electorate.  A ban had to target all religions, but couldn’t be absolute because that could violate international rights norms. It also risked alienating some Catholic voters because because many Catholic girls wore necklaces with small gold crosses. So Paris came up with a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” that would bar  Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That only bishops actually wore large crosses did not seem to matter.

(Photo: Sikhs in France protest against turban ban, 31 Jan 2004/Charles Platiau)

In the haste to pass and apply the law, the government overlooked a religious group that would also be hit by the new restrictions — the Sikhs. There are about 10,000 of them, mostly living in the Paris area, easily identifiable by the distinctive turbans the men wear. When local Sikh community leaders and Sikh activists from London protested that a turban is not a religious symbol, they were given a polite hearing and ignored. The Sikhs said the turban was simply a practical way of covering the real religious symbol, their uncut hair, so taking it off would expose the religious symbol the ban was meant to bar from state schools. It was a clever argument — one that, as the cynical French quip puts it, had the additional merit of being true — but the government was not going to allow any exceptions that could leave a back door open for Muslim girls to squeeze some kind of  headscarf through.

The uproar over the ban has long since calmed down, but the Sikhs continue to campaign to overturn it. A group called United Sikhs asked a U.N. human rights committee on Monday to declare that France had violated a student’s rights by expelling him for wearing a turban and to recommend repealing the law that led to it.

The outlook for this initiative is not bright. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights dismissed an appeal by a Sikh who had been told he could not get his driving license renewed unless he took off his turban for the picture. Earlier this month, it threw out a complaint by two French Muslim girls who were expelled from their school for refusing to remove their headscarves during sports lessons.

(Photo: Sikhs in New Delhi protest against French ban, 20 Feb 2006/Adnan Abidi)

Several other countries have made exceptions for Sikhs to allow them to continue wearing their turbans, but those countries are also more flexible than France about Muslim headscarves. Do you think France should make an exception for them too?


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I applaud the French government for their sensible tact and firm position. The personal safety rights of all people should outweigh the cultural norms some portions of society seek to protect under the guise of “faith”. Your faith is not as important as another man’s civil rights. Fostering any tolerance for cultures that do not supplement current social safe-guards will not enable cultures to properly adapt to their new foreign environments.

Posted by Craig Wilson | Report as abusive

Interesting how places that have historically been infected by tyranny seem to drift back that way, even when the inevitable outcome is so well documented. I suppose it’s because so many people think that “tolerance” means to legislate away things they don’t like, rather than actually tolerate them. I wonder when the war will begin.

Posted by Russ in PA | Report as abusive

France Needs To Return To Christian Values
(Le Besoin De France De Retourner Aux Valeurs Chrétiennes)

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

The French Republic is drifting toward state atheism to the utter delight of the Chardonnay Socialist élite and the EU institutions who spend loads of taxpayers’ money trying to erradicate any visible presence of religion in the so-called “public sphere”, in the name of “secularism”. Soon, only the Gay Pride will be allowed to demonstrate publicly. As a French Catholic living in Paris, I’m increasingly worried about this totalitarian trend. People have the right to practice the religion they choose, in private and in public.

Posted by Blaze | Report as abusive