Ban on Head Scarves Takes Effect in France
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: September 3, 2004
PARIS, Sept. 2 - A law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious
symbols from French public schools took effect peacefully on Thursday,
transforming the first day of school into a nationwide show of defiance
of a demand by the kidnappers of two French journalists in Iraq that the
law be rescinded.
Most Muslim schoolgirls arrived bareheaded at the country's 70,000
elementary and high schools, and most of those who had swathed their
heads in varying pieces of fabric removed them on request.
Instead of dividing the country, as perhaps the kidnappers had hoped,
intellectuals, journalists, religious leaders - even France's Muslims -
joined forces with the center-right government to tell the captors of
the two journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, to stay
out of France's affairs.
"Today we have to worry about the fate of the two hostages," said
Muhammad Bechari, vice president of the French Council for the Muslim
Religion, before heading to Baghdad as part of a delegation to win the
two men's release. "The political battle, a purely French one, for
religious freedom will resume later on."
France, he added, "is not at war with the Islamic faith."
Although the ban on "conspicuous" religious symbols also applies to
Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, there was never any doubt
that it was primarily aimed at France's five million Muslims and what is
widely perceived as creeping fundamentalism in their midst.
The education minister, Franšois Fillon, toured a number of schools with
large numbers of Muslim students on the outskirts of Paris on Thursday,
saying at one of them that opening day was "marked by fraternity, the
idea that all children are treated fairly and equally."
The seizure of the two French journalists has stunned France and exposed
the complexity of the country's struggle to integrate its growing Muslim
population at home as it tests the strength of its longstanding network
of alliances and personal friendships with Arab leaders.
The government mounted a relentless campaign to free the hostages by
wooing the far corners of the Muslim world and enlisting its political,
religious and intelligence allies to serve as intermediaries with the
kidnappers. Hope that the two journalists might be freed soon was raised
by reports late on Thursday that the kidnappers had turned the men over
to another group that favored their release.
Many of the intermediaries have portrayed France as a friend of the
Arabs that, because it opposed the war in Iraq, should not be punished.
At the same time, France is determined to enforce its tradition of
strict secularism by banning the Muslim head scarf from its public
schools - even if this alienates Muslims around the world.
Paradoxically, for the first time, French Muslims have united on a major
political issue and rallied behind the French government. They
essentially told the hostage-takers that they should stay out of
"We have seen an extraordinary display of national unity by the Muslim
community here saying, 'First, we are French,''' said Olivier Roy, a
leading French scholar of Islam. "They may disagree on the law of the
veil but they are saying, 'This is our fight and don't interfere.' This
is a pivotal moment."
Even some of the most outspoken critics of the law, including the
Geneva-based author and philosophy professor Tariq Ramadan, shifted
course and told students to comply.
Still, much of the Muslim world remains convinced that the new law is an
unfortunate affront to Islam. Arguments by French officials since the
law was passed in March, to explain it as a desirable way to preserve
France's republican values, have not been understood.
Even the interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, who was foreign
minister when the bill was passed, argued against it, predicting rightly
that it would be seen as an act against veils rather one for secularism.
"The Muslim world simply doesn't understand the law," said Abderrahim
Lamchichi, a political science professor at the University of Picardie
in Amiens. "It is deplorable that even liberal Muslims think that the
law is against Islam. It's absurd."
Similarly, in countries where multiculturalism is protected, even
celebrated, like the United States and Britain, there has been little
sympathy for the French position.
So the French government followed a two-pronged approach in dealing with
the hostage crisis: focusing on the criminality of hostage-taking under
Islam and explaining why the law should not be seen as anti-Islam.
Aside from purely humanitarian concerns, there are other reasons why the
nation has been fixated on freeing the two men.
First, there was a need to highlight that France, too, is a victim of
terrorism, despite its opposition to the American-led war in Iraq and
its refusal to send troops as part of an occupation or training force.
French officials point to the threat broadcast in February by Ayman
Zawahiri, the No. 2 figure in the Qaeda terrorist network, that
criticized the scarf ban as an affront to decency, adding that such
anti-Muslim acts by the West should be answered with tank shells and
Indeed, France has suffered more terrorist attacks and uncovered more
plots by Arab or Muslim radicals in the past decade than any other
European country. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 11 French technicians were
killed by a bomb in Karachi, Pakistan, and a French tanker was attacked
off the coast of Yemen, both apparently by Al Qaeda.
Second, there are strong memories here of French citizens being taken
hostage by Islamic radicals in Lebanon in the mid-1980's and the intense
negotiations they required with Syria and Iran.
Third, the hostages are journalists, whose profession enjoys much higher
standing in France than in the United States.
"These are people who are exposed, who find themselves in wars as they
seek the truth," said Bernard-Henri LÚvy, author of the best-selling
book, "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" about the American journalist slain by
Islamic radicals in Pakistan. "The journalist is a figure of modern
heroism in France."
Mr. Chirac and Mr. de Villepin had predicted that the war in Iraq would
unleash a new wave of terrorism and that no country would be immune.
They never said openly that fear of becoming a target of terrorism was
one reason France had stayed out of the war, although many here believed
that French citizens might be spared the wrath of hostage-takers in
Amid the condemnations of the hostage-taking, there have been strains of
A newspaper controlled by the party of Iraq's prime minister, Ayad
Allawi, on Thursday blamed France for the kidnapping.
"Chirac, who wants to present himself as fair, must take his share of
responsibility in the kidnapping of his two compatriots as he opposed
all international resolutions aimed at restoring Iraqis' security," one
editorial said. Another editorial complained that France had remained
silent while "terrorist attacks were being carried out against the Iraqi
people and infrastructure."
Even inside France, there are those who faulted the presumption of
immunity from terrorism in Iraq.
"The French have fallen from their heights because they were sure they
would be safe, thanks to Chirac's standing with the man on the street in
the Middle East," said Mr. LÚvy. "There was a perception that France's
pro-Arab policy would protect us. But that was an illusion. Now the
French are waking up and finding out that these people don't make any