What's in a Scarf?

The Debate on Laïcité in France

in French Politics, Culture & Society
Author: Nicolas Weill
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The issue of the Islamic headscarf has troubled French society since the end of the 1980s and led to legislation, enacted on 15 March 2004, proscribing the wearing of headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbol in schools. But what strained relationship between the state and religions, and more generally minorities, is hidden by this long controversy that preceded the centennial of the 1905 law separating church and state? This article aims to summarize for American readers the stakes involved in this long debate while putting it into historical perspective by trying to clear up misunderstandings that may crop up in discussions (on both sides of the Atlantic) of a subject where the famous "French exception" seems to be crystallized, that is, the practice of laïcité. Underlying these discussions, one must locate the treatment of religious minorities as put into place during the Napoleonic era in the case of the Jews, which has remained, mutatis mutandis, a model for the organization of Islam in the Hexagon at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Such a model is one of an assignment community, organized with the goal, inherited from the Revolution, of emancipating its members and responding to questions of public order.

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