France's Verbal Gymnastics
by Arianna Dini
Not satisfied with their verbal acrobatics of 2004, when religious symbols were banned from schools and government buildings, French politicians and intellectuals have plunged in to a second performance, offering an even wider range of hysterical unreasonings to patch together a justification for the burqa ban.
Let’s recall how France got to this point. In 1989 a headmaster, Ernest Cheniere, suspended three Muslim girls from school for refusing to remove their headscarves. In so doing, he broke the law—a fact that few seem to remember now. In 1993 Cheniere became a Member of Parliament for the centre-right party RPR and launched a campaign to ban headscarves from schools. By 1994, alarmist figures were leaked from the Interior Ministry estimating that one in eight Muslim girls wore the headscarf. (Later estimates put the figure closer to one in sixty). But the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest judicial body, overruled attempts to make the headscarf illegal. Then silence for a decade.
In 2003, President Jacques Chirac renewed efforts to ban the headscarf from schools. He succeeded—but not without considerable effort. The initial Bill aimed to ban “ostentatious” symbols, but was rejected by the Conseil d’Etat as unconstitutional and would have contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. After much squirming and many a verbal somersault, Chirac’s team settled for the term “ostentatory” (“ostentatoire”). This time, the Bill was passed and fully approved. This may be mere semantics, but it reveals the tenuous grounds on which the legislation rests.
More semantics reveal that while France demands special status for its laïcité (secularism), France’s secular state currently funds thousands of Catholic schools and hundreds of Jewish schools. The first Muslim school was finally given licensing approval to open in 2003. There are still less than ten, and they are wholly privately funded.
So what should the UK do as this hysteria over visible immigrants—and their naturalised offspring—sweeps Europe? Now more than ever it is time for Britain to stand by that sensible moderation for which it has been praised since Burke and that critical jealousy of personal liberty which Montesquieu so admired in the English. You do not have to like burqas, just as you do not have to like breast implants, goths, skinheads, or hippies. But for the Government to legislate against any of these expressions of identity is not the solution.