Symbolic Problems


Maybe some Francophile (phone, even?) can 'splain it to me, but when a French presidential commission backs a ban on yarmulkes, crucifixes, head scarves, and other "obvious" symbols of religious belief from public buildings I gotta think the nation has gone insane.

A report from al Jazeera, of all places, notes that Sikh turbans would have to go under the proposed ban. This, of course, is simply not possible for a Sikh man to do.

I just don't get it.

NEXT: Free Speech, RIP

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  1. Meanwhile, the atheists get to walk around displaying their nothings with impunity.

    You guys get all the breaks.

  2. The state shouldn’t need to step in here, social pressures are doing just fine. At least at getting rid of the yarmulkes…

  3. joe,

    We win again! We win again!

  4. I say we ship Judge Moore over there to balance things out.

  5. relic of french revolution…

    anti-clericism is a key part of the modern french state, stemming from how integrated the church was under l’ancien regime, their hold over so many matters, and the vicious punishments they could inflict. see dickens, charles “tale of two cities” for explanation.

    france is very strict (as is turkey) on maintaining a secular state. ergo no public displays of religion are allowed in a government context…

  6. JB will tells us what this is about as soon as he can find a link to a news article of a vaguely similar episode in American History.

  7. “‘In France, in terms of secularism, there is a lot to do. Veils are just one problem, but not the only problem,” said Daniel Robin, national secretary of the SNES union. Among problems, he said, was that several of France’s departments still require religion to be taught in public schools and have clergy on their payrolls.
    The commission also recommended what would be a first for France ? adding Jewish and Muslim holidays to the school calendar.”

    Apparently it’s not exactly a secular state yet. Imagine the collective blood pressure increase at the ACLU if US public schools were required to teach religion and had clergy on the payroll.

  8. Jeff,

    It largely has to do with how we view the public and private spheres; in the public sphere, one is French and only French, thus excessive displays of one’s religion and the like are frowned upon, in the private sphere, well, that’s not government’s or anyone else’s business. Its a cultural issue as much as it is rooted in anti-clericalism and ridding the Republic of clerical control.

    hey hey,

    Which departments are those?


    I generally don’t have to look up American history; I find that I have a better grasp of it than most Americans do.

  9. “in the public sphere, one is French and only French,”

    so, how does one say ‘pat buchanan’ in french, anyway?

    incidentally, there’s an article on this whole thing in the new economist:

  10. You can even type links to something relevant to this obscure discussion from memory? That is impressive.

  11. will,

    If you are saying that its a racist policy then you are wrong; being French has no racial, ethnic, religious, etc. requirements. This is an outgrowth of that Englightenment “universalism” that was so praised the other day. This has been the French “project” as it were for hundreds of years; forging Frenchmen out of a mass of very complex ethnic and social groupings.

  12. I understand how France would want to isolate all of the most extreme religious types away from the mainstream and make sure they are only exposed to their dogmatic views away from the public eye because that way the country will get less religious….wait a minute

  13. Jean Bart:

    I generally don’t . . . look up American history

    We know. 😉

    being French has no racial, ethnic, religious, etc. requirements.

    Seriously, JB, if I want to become a French citizen, what are the requirements and restrictions?

    [Removing his turban], of course, is simply not possible for a Sikh man to do.

    Of course it is possible. He may really, really want to keep it on, but if he takes it off I doubt his health will suffer or the planet will spin off its axis or anything.

  14. Sounds like the attempt to forge a German identity out of the hodgepodge of states and religions of central Europe in the 1800s. Which, as I recall, could get pretty rough on outsiders.

  15. M Bart: hmmmm. muslims pay taxes in france, don’t they? but the majority gets to tell them what their children can wear when they go to the schools they have paid for. not racism, just typical euro-paternalism.

  16. Forging Frenchmen by forcing dress conformity, Jean Bart? I am an atheist that hates the very concept of religion but you should know that these sorts attacks on free expression only serve to empower the extreme elements that are the really dangerous part of religion.

  17. RC: circumcision doesn’t hurt (much) either, and it reduces the risk of transmission of STD’s so why would anyone complain?

  18. JDM, thanks. i had actually just finished the article so it was on my mind.

    JB, racist, not really, or no more so than pat buchanan, who doesn’t really have a problem with immigrants, so long as they learn english and become more american, dammit.

  19. This idea of a monolithic “French” identity is as ridiculous as the idea of “Americanism” over here that looks askance at personal conversions in a foreign language, if they take place in public. The whole post-1789 notion that each nation state constitutes a Volk, with population transfers of ethnic minorities, suppression of local dialects in favor of the local dialect spoken in the capital city, etc., sickens me. Is speaking, say, Breton or Provencal also forbidden in the “public sphere”?


    Incidentally, Mexico had a similar anticlerical policy for a long time under the PRI regime. It was illegal to wear clerical garb in public.

    And the Turkish anticlericalism goes even further, in some ways. At one time, if not still, it was illegal to publish Qurans in Arabic or to conduct religious services in Arabic–an utter abomination in the rest of the Islamic world, which believes the Quran cannot be accurately translated.

  20. R.C. Dean,

    Parsing my statements is the only way you will ever win a debate against me apparently.

    You would have to look up the requirements.


    Hmm, the process largely occurred over the 19th century; and every nation-state on the planet has one form or another of it; what was particular about the forging of a German national identity was that it was tied to German/Prussian militarism. This is vastly different from French notions of universal liberty and the like.


    “muslims pay taxes in france, don’t they? but the majority gets to tell them what their children can wear when they go to the schools they have paid for. not racism, just typical euro-paternalism.”

    Hmm, the majority gets to tell people what they may wear in US public schools, correct? You have dress codes, correct? Some US schools even require uniforms.

    Besides, there are state-funded religious schools (Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant) in France; if one wants to go that route, one may.

    Shady O’Grady,

    Actually I don’t know that; we’ve had secularism since 1903, and what it did do was (a) cut down on the clerical influence in French government, (b) serve a body blow to anti-semetism in France (conservative Catholics were some of the main proponents of anti-semetism – one of the reasons why the 1903 law triumphed was due to the triumph of the liberals in the Dreyfus Affair), and (c) helped eventually rid French politics of the divisive debates about the role of the Church in society and the state.

  21. Kevin Carson,

    Well, the problem with your analysis is that there is no “volk” in the French national identity. Being French does not mean something like the “blood and soil” notion of Bismark, etc. In fact, being French is an “idea,” that is a way of being, it has no genetic qualities to it. Indeed as much as being an American is an “idea.” Which is of course why one may be French and be of any religious or racial persuasion; the “blood and soil” concept of Bismark and later the Nazis had a genetic quality to it that is lacking in the French national identity in other words. You are confusing two very different ways of viewing citizenship and national identity.

  22. With partial seriousness–
    Would a turban or head scarf made from or including the French flag be acceptable?

    Although possibly threatening to some for its militant religious symbolism, it would also proclaim Frenchness.

    I get the ideal of church/state separation, but if both are essential to a person’s identity, the separation isn’t possible. Sure, as RC points out, it would be physically possible for a Sikh to pull off the turban, but that would deprive him of something essential to his self-image and self-worth. And when the legislative proposals advance past bodily adornment to physical behaviour, it becomes harder for a person to abide by the public code. As an extreme example, a Japanese may habitually bow, even if that was made illegal due to bowing being adopted as a militant signal by gangs or terrorists.

  23. It would not surprise me in the least to see a similar headline in the US, probably at a university, which oddly enough seem to be at the forefront of expresion limitation in this country. I could easily see it being passed by some lame campus administration on the grounds that these expresions might “offend” other students (much as confederate flags, conservative speakers, and affirmative action bake sales have been banned for the same reason).

    In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if similar bans have already been attempted at public high schools (I know I have seen folks sent home for religeous T-shirts).

    I am an atheist, and AM threatened by christian social conservative legislation trying to ban homosexuality or various other forms of expresion or association. However, I am NOT threatened by Christmas trees in public or people wearing yarmulkes, and I have never had very much sympathy for secular crusaders who waste their time with that stuff.

  24. Of course, 19th century. 1800s, 19th century. Duhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

    I hate it when I do that.

  25. Jean Bart, I do not know enough about French law. Are there any other rules regarding what views one may or may not express in public?

  26. JB –
    I’m a bit shocked that you’re actually defending this. You know, there’s no shame in just admiting that your government has done something stupid. Hey, all of us Yankees on the board are thowing fits over the recent SCOTUS ruling.

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but for my own understanding, what this ban is saying (and you implicitly by your defense of it) is that it is acceptable to prohibit people, adults, not just children, from wearing not inflamatory or emotionally-charged religious apparel, but traditional and sacred clothing while in public venues. Is that correct?

    Would you proscribe that type of legislature for other nations?

  27. This is just an example of anti-religious extremism taken to its logical, uh, extreme. Anti-religious fanaticism is just as dangerous as its religious counterpart.

    And before we get all self-righteous about the French, let’s remember that if you had brought up the idea of same-sex marriage here in America 25 years ago, you would have gotten the same “could never happen here” response that this French ban now does.

    I used to laugh at a certain “Jesus Freak” at school back in the 70s who had committed himself to memorizing the Gospels in anticipation of the day “when the Communists take away our Bibles.” Now, it doesn’t seem so funny.

  28. In the late eighties, I was introduced to the following generalization in a comparative politics class. It went something like, “In America, if it isn’t illegal, it’s legal; In Germany, if it isn’t legal, it’s illegal. In Russia, even if it’s legal, it’s illegal, and in France, even if it’s illegal, it’s legal.”

    In regards to France, what the professor was saying is that laws are enforced occasionaly and unevenly. They even have a hard time collecting taxes in an evenhanded way.

    A large portion of the electorate, at any given time, considers the govenment in power completely illegitimate. More so than the way Repubs felt about Clinton and Dems feel about Bush. Remember also that IN THEIR PARLAMENT, on the far right, is the National Front, a party of unabashed fascists, and on the far left is…get ready…The Communists. How seriously can you take a goverment like that? How seriously would you take the laws they pass?

    Anyway, my understanding is that all the way down to the local cop, it’s generally felt that laws are more or less a general guideline whereas, in our culture, this would represent more of a policy shift, and we would wonder about the implications in common law.

    So, I wouldn’t get too excited to hear that they’ve implemented something like this. I mean, they pass laws about the use of language too,you know…so what? It’s not as if a cop is going to drag you away for misconjugating a verb.

    Although we should always be concerned about the state of liberty, I don’t think it’s a sign of the times.

  29. From what little I know of this issue, it seems that the French government wants to ban headscarves as a way to interfere with promotion of Islamic fundamentalism among France’s large population of immigrants from North Africa.

    They probably added the idea of banning yarmulkes and crucifixes so that it would not appear they are persecuting Muslims or singling out Arabs.

    In American public schools, there appear to be cases where young Muslims can display their religious paraphernalia, but Christians and Jews are banned from doing so. Muslims become the “beneficiaries” of multi-culturalism, but Christians and Jews are seen to be Americans, and thus subject to separation of church and state.

  30. I don’t see a problem with this decision; these are government buildings and they should be religiously neutral places.


    The National Front has never had more than a few seats in the Parliament at any one time; and they none right now. In fact, the Parliament is dominated now by center-right parties.

  31. Jean Bart,

    Of course, government buildings should be religiously neutral places. But to presume that the people in the building should be “religiously neutral” is not only preposterous but naive. Taking off visable religious attire in public buildings is the most superficial indication of religious “neutrality” – words and actions being the truly preeminate concern to any secularist who is pragmatic.

  32. Jonas Cord,

    Ostentatious displays of religious identity in public buildings are an affront to a secular France; that is simply the way it is.

  33. Jean Bart,

    I appreciate your frankness on this issue. If French national identity requires the total subjugation of religious identity to national identity – that does not bode well for the strength and integrity of either institution. Veils, yarmulkes, turbans and crucifixes don’t threaten secularism – but a secularism that doesn’t respect these traditions is encouraging the religious not to participate in secular society and will suffer accordingly.

  34. How is wearing turban, yarmulke, veil, or crucifix ostentatious?

  35. There was a similar kerfuffle up north about Sikhs wearing their turbans into the local Legion halls. Some thought it disrespectful to the sovereign. That is, until a Sikh sought entry sporting a VC ribbon on his suit coat during Rememberance day weekend. Case closed.

  36. When I read something like this, I’m full of appreciation for the US’s libertarian heritage.

  37. There is a great deal of respect; in fact, its the nature of that respect which drives this issue. No one religion should have predominance in the public square, and this is a good way to assure this. No one’s religious liberty is harmed, in fact, its enhanced.

    Alright, I give up completely. Maybe another French person can come along and better explain this “ceci n’est pas une pipe” reasoning to this ignorant American.

  38. Given that (as has been pointed out above) many people will find the practice of their religious to be incompatible with their continued participation in the public sphere, this law seems quite unfair; I’d like to see an argument about this aspect.

    I’m interested to see how people react. It seems likely that the law, if enforced uniformly, will have interesting effects upon religious folks to whom the wearing of religious clothing is more important.

    Perhaps it will become less important to them. I personally see this as generally positive. Perhaps they will withdraw from the public sphere. This seems quite negative to me.

    Some, I’d figure, will seek to change the laws, through one mechanism or another – the legal processes, or civil disobedience, or violence.

    If enforcement of the law is biased towards or against particular religious practitioners, that is another matter.

    Some will be disaffected and withdraw from the public sphere. Some will seek equal treatment; others will seek to change the laws; and still others will find other ways to react.

    It’s certainly a very interesting social experiment, ha ha!

  39. Jean Bart

    Why is it that the favorite argument of western Europeans (e.g., you) is “tu quoque”? It is not only logically fallacious, it is unpersuasive –especially from a Frank or a German.

  40. Jean Bart, you never answered my question.

  41. I think I have hit upon a solution: a law mandating the utter randomization of “obvious” signs of religious identity.

    To wit, a single a day of the week, as determined by gov. ID number, you must wear the gab of another sect. So on Mondays last names A-D, Sikh turban, E-K large cross, L-O, head wrap deal, etc. for those with IDs starting with 1, or something. Gotta be doable, employs bureaucrats, doesn’t ban things, better?

  42. Here’s an interesting article entitled “Understanding turbans“.

    I’ve seen a few around campus that seem to have a knot at the peak. Any idea what kind that is?

    Interestingly, now some Lego sets have black, white, or red turbans in them.

  43. I’m not clear either on how a headscarve is an ostentatious religious display. I’m with Jonas Cord on this one.

    And exactly how many state funded Muslim schools are there in France? I was under the impression there was only one, Lycee Averroes.

  44. Frenk,

    Why is the favorite argument of Americans (that means you) an unpersuasive lumping together of all non-Americans as “them?” Are you arguing that somehow Europeans are genetically predisposed to the use of said fallacy? BTW, while “tu quoque” is a logical fallacy, it is only so if one is arguing that two wrongs make a right or is an attempt to throw a argumentum ad hominem into the debate, which of course I have not done. That you have done the latter is of course telling.

  45. Frenk,

    BTW, I believe you were just hoisted by your own petard. *chuckle*

  46. Alex,

    There are dozens as I recall; the one you mention is the only Muslim Lycee in France.

    It would be just as ostentatious as if I were to wear a religious habit to school.

  47. Maybe I’m just sniping, but I find it really hard to wrap Jean Bart’s defense of this edict with his earlier statement:

    “This is vastly different from French notions of universal liberty and the like.”

    So is the French notion of universal liberty that you must subjugate your personal liberty to the secular state? And on one more comment, is “secular France” so thin-skinned that the personal display of items considered required by different religions is an affront which cannot be tolerated? Perhaps you in a nun’s habit is ostentatious, but a crucifix on a chain (assuming it’s not rap-artist-sized) or a yarmulke? Seems like the equivalent of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy to me.

  48. A secular society doesn’t treat a cross or headscarf as a threat to public order. It treats them as a piece of jewelery and a hat.

  49. Why are people afraid of clothing?
    If nuns are outlawed, only outlaws will have nuns.

  50. Reason #3678 I’m happy to not live in France. I do not wear a yarmulke (and am an atheist), but if a gendarme were to try to remove one from my head he’d be picking yarn from his colon.

    JB, don’t you see this as the opposite form of the same impulse the Taliban had in dictating beard length and garb? Or you don’t mind that people who belive that it’s a disrespect to God to leave their head uncovered, should have that ability taken away from them, not because it harms anyone in a real way, but because it’s un-French?

  51. Jason Cord,

    There is a great deal of respect; in fact, its the nature of that respect which drives this issue. No one religion should have predominance in the public square, and this is a good way to assure this. No one’s religious liberty is harmed, in fact, its enhanced.

  52. Jean Bart,

    My point was the pernicious nature of all monolithic official ideas of “national identity” that destroy the actual organic nature and variety of human society. The U.S., for instance, originally had Dutch in the Hudson valley, French in northern Maine and New Orleans, Germans in western Pennsylvania, and Scots Highlanders in the Carolina backcountry. So the idea that an American fatherland should mandate a policy of “English only” sounds pretty unAmerican to me.

    Imagine the reaction if the policy required, instead, Algerians to put on white pancake makeup, because “our French identity is non-racial.”

    The problem with the policy is that, by making religious expression some kind of detraction from generic French unity, it creates an official French “national identity” that is actively anti-religious and militantly secular. As a result, religious people are marginalized within a larger society defined by a positive ideology of secularism.

    I suppose I can understand the historical reason for such policies, given the position of the Church as First Estate in the Old Regime. But an established religion of secularism that treats the religious as an “other” in their own country, is just as bad as an established church of the old variety.

    The proper response of anyone, told by an officious bureaucrat to remove cross, yarmulke or head scarf, is “Don’t tell me what to do, asshole. My taxes pay your salary.”

  53. Kevin Carson,

    Of course the problem is that people who wear these headscarves, called “foulards,” are incredibly disruptive, and even violent. According to the French government’s tracking of this, nearly ~2,500 incidents last year alone were attributed to people bullying women over not wearing them. French girls – Muslim or not – have been raped solely because they do not wear them. And this was in schools; I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in France and have to deal with this issue outside of school.

    This is much more than an issue of national identity or religious freedom; in fact, the entire subtext of this issue centers around certain elements of the Muslim community attempting to create state within a state (much as the Protestants attempted to do during the Wars of Religion). Included in that state would of course all the nightmares that come with theocracies.

    Banning the foulard is one means of combatting this issue.

  54. Kevin,

    Now, if there was an item in the US public schools that created these sorts of incitements to violence, would not ban it as well? Religious freedom only goes as far as it starts to interfere with the rights of others; and to be frank, the foulard is a instrument of thugs and would-be fascists who would like to turn their part of France into a theocratic dystopia.

  55. Jean-Bart, a Francophile who probably believes that he is pro-liberty and uses “Ashcroft” as a swear word, tells us how inanimate objects cause violent crime:

    “Of course the problem is that people who wear these headscarves, called “foulards,” are incredibly disruptive, and even violent. According to the French government’s tracking of this, nearly ~2,500 incidents last year alone were attributed to people bullying women over not wearing them. French girls – Muslim or not – have been raped solely because they do not wear them.”

    Yes, every single minority person in France who wears a foulard is a rapist.

    “Banning the foulard is one means of combatting this issue.”

    Utterly amazing.

    Maybe the French should arrest people who have dark skin.

  56. Jean Bart, how they dress is not the problem. The reaction to thugs harming people for not wearing their uniform should be a mass demonstration of people not wearing the uniform, not capitulation to their fascism.

    What if the bastards were offended by Jews who didn’t wear yellow stars?

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