The events that became known as the affaires de foulard began on 3 October 1989, when three Muslim girls who refused to remove their head scarves were expelled from their middle school in the town of Creil, about thirty miles outside of Paris. The headmaster, Eugène Chenière, claimed he was acting to enforce laïcité––the French version of secularism. According to Chenière, laïcité–– a concept whose meaning would be furiously debated in the months and years that followed––was an inviolable and transparent principle, one of the pillars of republican universalism. The school was the cradle of laïcité, the place where the values of the French republic were nurtured and inculcated. It was, therefore, in the public schools that France had to hold the line against what he later termed “the insidious jihad.”
The Banning of Islamic Head Scarves in French Public Schools
Joan W. Scott
Joan W. Scott
Robert Nye’s elegant essay rightly puts the PaCS, and the debates about it, into a historical context of French natalism. At least since the late nineteenth century, reproduction has been the raison d’être of the married couple and the state has often made fertility synonymous with patriotism. From this has followed all manner of representations, many of them contradictory. Thus although it surely was the case, as Nye shows, that marriage was eroticized and marital love idealized, it was also the case that reproduction and sexual satisfaction were considered separate domains. French bourgeois culture, however idealized its family, has long been associated with the inevitability of extramarital affairs. One of the reasons French commentators found the Monica Lewinsky scandal ridiculous and symptomatic of what they define as American puritanism, was that it contrasted so sharply with their own customs and expectations. Mitterrand’s second family was hardly shocking from that perspective; and judging by films, novels and statistical findings, the desire of men and women can rarely be satisfied within the confines of marriage. Indeed one of the aims of the PaCS was to resolve the tension between laws based on a sentimental view of the family and social practices that had given the lie to these views. The abolition of the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children is an example of this; it recognizes that marriage is no longer enduring and that family arrangements have eroded the grounds on which “legitimacy” was once conferred.