Feel free to listen to this blast from the past while you consider that France, too, has its fair share of idiotic racism. You may have read in The New York Times that a 15-year-old girl was sent home from school twice recently because the principal thought her skirt wasn’t short enough. That’s right, long skirts are offensive.
The scandal of the long skirt is not because the principal is a creeper who must ogle all the legs (although, who knows?), it’s a religious thing. Or rather, an anti-religious thing. French phrase of the day: signe religieux ostentatoire. In English, “ostentatious sign of religion.” Adjective of the day: laïque (secular).
This isn’t some post- 9/11 Islamophobia. Nope, it goes back to 1989 (or to the decolonization, or Medieval crusades, or…). Known as the “affaire du voile” (sometimes “affaire du foulard”), the French allergy to Muslim sartorial choices (or lack thereof) is, believe it or not, is meant as a sign of good will. Baring is caring.
The rationale goes like this: France had to put up with a thousand years of Catholicism and monarchy, so when the Revolutionaries tried so famously to undo those things (my personal favorite attempt at secularization was their attempt to reset the calendar create metric-system 10-day weeks. Because, hey, the weekend just comes around too fast, doesn’t it?) they embraced (at least in theory) secularism (la laïcité) as a great emancipator. Think of it as freedom from religion. Not that you couldn’t be religious, but that’s your private business. The separation of Church and State didn’t become law until 1905 (just read the Wikipedia page if you want to know more about it, ’cause I’m about to finish this post), and the debates about the two are ongoing (just like they are in the USA).
There is a perverse logic to the French concept of laïcité (seriously, learn that word and throw it around like you write for The New Yorker): if public institutions act like nobody is religious, then nobody can be discriminated against. No, wait, that’s not it. If public institutions ban ostentatious religious displays then we won’t have to endure new iterations of 1980s Madonna “material girl” Jean-Paul Gaultier and ginormous crucifix fashion. No, wait. If we can make Muslim women look less Islamic then the world will have less terrorism. No, that’s not it. I know there are valid points somewhere to be made for 2004 law against headscarves (and other ostentatious religious symbols, whatever that means) Somewhere in there lies a brand of egalitarianism, it’s just really, really hard to find when you read stories like this.
Maybe there are some intelligent comments in the Obs French article about it. Peruse away. Reading comments sections of French posts is a win-win: French language practice + a daily dose of pessimism to make you just a tad more French.