In December last year I gave the children in my local primary school, deep in rural France, a taste of an English Christmas. While, with typically French good manners, they gazed in awe at the snow scene on the iced cake, I explained to them that, originally, mince pies were bigger and were made in the shape of the manger, you know, the manger where the baby Jesus was laid... at which point the teacher came rushing up shaking her finger: "No mention of religion in a state school," she said, sternly. Not even at Christmas.
Later that month, and again in January, thousands of French women and schoolgirls took to the streets, demanding the right to wear headscarves in schools. Every year some 150 Muslim girls risk expulsion from their schools because they insist on wearing a headscarf, which, they say, their religion demands and French law allows. But the directors of the schools and most French people say headscarves are not just cultural emblems: they proselytise, thus upsetting the neutral balance of the classroom, essential for the "serene transmission of republican values."
A few days before the first demonstration, Jacques Chirac announced there would be a new law forbidding the wearing of all "ostensible religious insignia" in state schools. This law was passed in the Assemblenationale by an overwhelming 494 votes to 36 on 10th February. Laïcité - a concept incomprehensible to many people outside France, would be upheld. Laïcité is a cornerstone of republican values. Derived from the Greek laos (the people, as distinct from the clergy), it is a specifically anti-clerical term. Its meaning is active, unlike the passive notion of secularism. Laïcité is about purging all state-run establishments - schools, prisons, hospitals - of any whiff of the soutane. The problem facing France today is that the priest's black soutane has been replaced by the Muslim woman's hijab. Or so in France we are led to believe. In fact, this is nonsense. The 19th-century Catholic clergy had real power in France, while today's Muslim schoolgirls have none - except the considerable power of tying the French in knots.
France is an averagely religious country with a fiercely non-religious state. The desire to prise the Roman Catholic church out of the corridors of power came to a head during the revolution. But contrary to popular belief, that separation was brief. In 1801, Napoleon restored the church to power, making all clergy salaried staff of the state. For the entire 19th century France continued to be guided by Rome. With the emergence of workers' rights and socialism, however, the church - its power threatened for a second time - attempted to repress republican ideals. There was a long, bitter, and at times bloody battle. The result was the famous law of 1905, which permanently separated church and state. Church property was confiscated, the clergy lost their state income and many thousands of monks and nuns were forced out of their monasteries. Rome retaliated by excommunicating all those who had voted for the law.
The 1905 law separates; it does not discriminate. Indeed it stresses freedom of conscience. It doesn't mention the wearing of religious insignia in schools or public buildings. Its purpose is to reinforce one of the three pillars of republicanism: égalité The ideal of equality lies behind the French policy towards immigrants - welcomed as equals, but only as long as they become like the French, adopting French language, culture and values. Republicanism is not merely the reverse of the take it or leave it British attitude towards monarchy. If you have a problem with republicanism, you have a problem with being French. Laïcité is an absolute, an exception française. Friends tell me it's almost impossible for someone who hasn't lived French history to understand why religion must not be tolerated in schools. The difficulty is that many immigrants currently at odds with Laïcitémyself included, are French nationals who haven't lived French history and don't see religion as a force of evil.
The very word seems dangerous to me, because it defies definition and translation. Regis Debray, an influential thinker and member of the commission set up by Jacques Chirac to advise on the application of Laïcitéparticularly with reference to headscarves, says in a 50-page submission that the word Laïcitéa "notion juridique et politique" has nothing to do with secularism, a "notion sociale et culturelle." Which may be just another way of saying: foreigners beware.
In the mouths of moderate politicians, aware that many countries, particularly the US, are observing France critically, the word is used to mean a neutral state where all religions are tolerated equally, an agnostic absence of religion. But recent pressure from militant Islam has brought hardline atheist republicans out in force, to the point where Laïcité is invoked with mystical overtones, itself mimicking a religion, with its own dogma and high priests.
Even reasonable French people deride the American separation of church and state as theistic. True Laïcitéthey say, wouldn't tolerate the words "in God we trust" on coins, nor a president who swears an oath of allegiance on the Bible. In some ways, however, the American system is stronger, since its legislature cannot pass laws concerning religion, as the French Assemblée nationale has just done. The US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, John Hanford, puts the differences succinctly: "In France, wearing a hijab is considered anti-French. In America it would be considered anti-American to force someone to take it off."
The French consider the British system, a state religion with a monarch at its head, as quite beyond the pale (the situation in Northern Ireland is often perceived as the result of having a repressive state religion). According to Henri Pena-Ruiz, a philosopher and another member of Chirac's commission into LaïcitéFrance "is the country where religions are most free and most equal in their freedom." But an inevitable result of the 1905 law that made teaching religion in state schools illegal is French ignorance about the basis of much western culture. "When I talk about prayer, fasting, Moses or Abraham, only my Jewish or Muslim pupils know what I'm talking about," a teacher told Le Monde d'Education back in 1987. So in 1996, teaching "le fait religieux" was allowed back into state schools, but it is only coming in bit by bit. Many teachers are not only ignorant of religious matters but ideologically opposed, so make no effort.
I asked Jean Ibanez, a philosophy teacher from Montpellier, whether he can discuss the headscarf issue with his students: "Only by studying a text. For a teacher to express an opinion on a religion would be a very serious error." This subject, which has become a crucial issue in French life and is centred in the classroom, cannot be discussed there. So it is settled with insults and fists, unsupervised, in the playground. "France has changed," says Alain Touraine, another member of the commission set up by Chirac. "In lycées now, one is no longer identified by one's social class or even by one's clothing, but by religion. One is Jew or Arab." By making Laïcité kind of state religion, other religions are highlighted rather than assimilated. Yet a kind of militant Laïcité is now held up by many as the only way of halting fundamentalist Islam: "It isn't for laïcité to adapt to religions but religions to adapt to laïcité,' says Pena-Ruiz. "I do not want tolerance," he says, quoting the revolutionary statesman Mirabeau, "because tolerance supposes an authority which tolerates. And the authority which tolerates today may very well tomorrow tolerate no longer."
"We must see the roots of your hair," declared a headmaster at Aubervilliers to his female Muslim pupils. "We must see the lobes of your ears and the nape of your neck." If the attitude sounds intolerant, the girls themselves are no less intransigent. Before a Muslim girl can be deprived of state education, there has to be a long process of dialogue, involving outside adjudicators. In most cases compromise is reached and the girl agrees to take off her headscarf in class, or in certain classes, if she can wear it in the playground and canteen. To get herself expelled she has to be very single - if not bloody - minded (is it reasonable, for example, to expect to wear a headscarf during gym?). The irony is that Catholic schools are more tolerant of the Muslim girl who wants to wear her headscarf. Deprived of her right to free state education, the expelled young woman can go to a Catholic school which will only be nominally private, since most of its costs will be paid for... by the r?blique la?e. In Marseille there are nine Catholic schools where up to 90 per cent of the pupils are Muslim.
Such a contradiction highlights the gap between theory and reality - between, for example, a blind belief that all French people are equal and the blatant social inequality in the ghettos, where first, second and third-generation immigrants, unable to move up, still live. While the great and the good have spent recent months honing republican principles by quoting Condorcet, Comte and Kant, French nationals of immigrant extraction live in appalling housing conditions, and face above-average unemployment and unequal opportunities. But with the refusal of republican law even to acknowledge where new arrivals come from (in a census one is not allowed to mention ethnic background or religious belief), official statistics about the number of Muslims in France are guesswork and, probably for political reasons, largely inflated. While politicians say there are between 5m and 7m Muslims, Mich?e Tribalat, director of research at the National Institute of Demographic Studies, has put the figure at 3.7m - of whom 2.5m are adults. The storm she raised trying to get an accurate snapshot of France is another example of an overly rigid republicanism left behind by a changing world. This denial of the reality of ethnicity and belief is aggravated by the particularly high regard the French have for their own identity. Faced with hosts who boast that they have the best of everything - from cooking and healthcare to democracy - it is understandable if immigrants react defensively: "my country is quite good too."
This pretence of equality, and the systematic denial of identity, has made even third-generation French im-migrants wonder who they are. The more the authorities discourage it, the more the young will search for the answer. The breaking point for many French nationals of north African origin came when France won the soccer World Cup in 1998. In some matches it looked more like a north African team with a few European guests. Immigrants could say, "We did it, not them." Seeing French society in terms of them and us accentuated the sense of separation and, as an identifiable group, they became easier to politicise through the culture their parents had been forced to deny: Islam. Three years later, when Algeria played France in the same hallowed Stade de France, young French Muslims booed and jeered the French national anthem. France was appalled, and the press fell back on a reactionary nationalism: "What shocks, irritates and upsets is that the guests of a state do not have the politeness to respect the laws of their hosts," raged an editorial in the moderate left-wing weekly, Nouvel Observateur. More recently, the editor of another weekly, Le Point, openly declared that he was an Islamophobe. Hating Islam is becoming respectable.
I came to live in France in 1989. I am English, white, middle class and an immigrant. In order to live in France a foreigner needs a special identity card known as a carte de s?ur. Mine had written across it the injunction "forbidden to work," even though Britain had been a part of the European Community for 16 years. To get this, I had to show my mayor and many other local officials my bank statements, and I had to have a full medical. This was not a quiet visit to a GP, but a three-hour journey to Marseille, and an afternoon spent in a hangar close to the docks. About a hundred of us, mostly north African, underwent a series of surreal humiliations. We were required to fill a white plastic beaker with urine, but without overfilling it, since we weren't allowed to use the toilet facilities. Men and women together in one large room, peed in unison. It was a stirring example of mutual co-operation - those males whose bladders were bigger than their beakers donated their excess urine to those females too modest to squat down in public.
If the French football team has given young men of north African extraction a sense of tribal belonging, the identity problem facing their sisters is more delicate. The French press and French feminists make much of the idea that Islam is a backward-looking, patriarchal religion and that these young women are victims of violence, rape and suppression at the hands of their brothers and fathers - forced into arranged marriages, circumcision and, of course, the headscarf. This may be true in some cases, but blaming the comic-strip Muslim male is too easy. The most common image used to sell any product in France is a young, naked woman. The body beautiful is embedded in French mores - the symbol of republican France is bare-breasted Marianne. Revealing the charms of the female body is as much part of French couture as covering it up is part of the north African. Objectively, neither is superior to the other. But an adolescent girl, coming to terms with her own body, is confronted with large photographs of seductive, mostly unclothed models every time she walks to school. Attracted and repelled, it is understandable that she might want to rebel, and disguise her own sexuality, if only to give herself time to work things out for herself. After all, as Jean Ibanez says, "the aim of French education is to teach the pupil how to think as an individual. Not en bloc." Another irony in the way that the outline-softening hijab offends French feminists is that it's just the sort of shapeless clothing some of their British and American sisters demanded in the 1970s, to prevent women being treated as sex objects. French schools allow ten year olds to wear a thong showing at the top of their buttocks, while 18 year olds are forbidden to cover their ears.
Women's rights have taken longer to evolve in France than in the US or Britain: until 1965, a married woman could not work without the consent of her husband. Women are under-represented in French official life (unless you count the pillow power of the mistress) - accounting for only 12 per cent of the Assembl?nationale. The fact that of the 20 members of the commission looking into issues raised by adolescent girls, only six were women has not been remarked upon in the press; nor that at least 16 of the 20-strong commission were European. One of the members, Alain Touraine, has said the commission made no provision to seek the opinion of young Muslim women. Only on the last day were a handful of girls able to put their point of view. This blind spot towards the independence and intelligence of women may be why every commentator, male or female, I have read on the subject assumes that young women are forced into wearing the headscarf. This assumption persisted even in the case of two girls who had converted to Islam, and were expelled for wearing headscarves last October. Their father described himself as a "Jewish non-believer, disapproving of headscarves but believing in freedom of choice."
The recent troubles spring from a chance remark about identity cards. Headscarves in schools became an issue in 1989 - calmed down by a series of government circulars and intelligent discussion on both sides. Then, on 19th April last year, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, invited as guest speaker to the 20th AGM of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), re-ignited the whole question. Apparently surprised to find himself faced with so many women wearing headscarves, he reminded his audience that French law requires citizens to be bareheaded for identity card photographs. Some 10,000 Muslims erupted with cat calls. The headscarf was back on the front pages and the only plausible explanation for Sarkozy's apparently off the cuff remark is that two days later, on 21st April, it was the first anniversary of the National Front's victory over the socialists in the 2002 elections. The interior minister had to pre-empt Le Pen in no-nonsense toughness. In the event, Le Pen celebrated with a headline-grabbing speech denouncing Chirac's lack of will to "curb the Muslim menace." But if that is the reason, nobody in Sarkozy's office seems to have realised how militant Islam in France has become since 1989.
French Muslims are far from homogeneous. The Paris Mosque represents moderate Islam: Algerian in origin and teaching, it has strong influence on a dozen provincial mosques, but the fact that a third of its finance comes from Algeria angers others. Nevertheless, its rector, Dalil Boubakeur, is the Muslim closest to the Elys? The second large group, the UOIF, is closer to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt - which explains why France's interior minister flew to Cairo in December as soon as the law forbidding headscarves in schools was announced. He needed public approval from Sheikh Tantawi, rector of Al-Azhar university and mosque, and the spiritual guide to the UOIF.
But perhaps the most disturbing influence on French Muslims comes from Saudi Arabia. Since the 1905 law forbids the state from financing religious buildings, most Muslims worship in flats or garages. Lyon, however, boasts a magnificent mosque paid for primarily with Saudi money and staffed by Saudi (Wahhabi) imams. Since Islam has no church, no hierarchy, no single authoritative voice with whom a republican government can have dialogue, Sarkozy had to create one. He put the moderate Boubakeur as president and then held elections in the Muslim community for councillors. Militants took most of the seats.
This begs the question: if the state is so defiantly separate from the church, what is a government minister doing setting up Islamic councils, holding "Muslim only" elections and rushing to Cairo to negotiate a friendly statement from people associated with the Muslim Brotherhood? It is deeply embarrassing. While his president thunders that "la?t?'est pas negotiable," Sarkozy is proving the opposite. Indeed, he wants those Muslim votes when he pits himself as presidential candidate in 2007. For if, in the blighted ghettos, the issue of wearing a headscarf is about individual identity, at the top end the stakes are about personal power. The last presidential elections destroyed the Socialist party - something has to fill the gap. It may be the National Front, but there are also some very effective Muslim orators. The strength of both these extremes is that their leaders work the street.
The most astute Islamic politician is charismatic, ambitious Tariq Ramadan, aged 42. Despite controversial remarks about Jews and the shari'a punishment of stoning, and despite not even being French, he is taken so seriously by the government that Sarkozy debated with him live on television. As a former third-world militant, Ramadan has also espoused the mushrooming far left anti-globalisation faction, sucking in supporters of Jos?ov?a French icon of revolt, mixing his popular anti-Americanism with hard criticism of Israel. Rather more antisemitic is Mohammed Latr?e (Syrian-trained, aggressively pro-Palestinian) who uncovers Zionist plots at every turn. And there are others who daily encourage a growing and dangerous hatred - not only of Jews but now also of "French Islamophobes." For it has to be said that there is open hatred on both sides. Republicanism and Islam have become clashing ideologies, and the new repressive ban on headscarves is set to aggravate the extremes.
Another question raised by the new law is whether France considers la?t?ompatible with being part of the EU. Article nine of the European convention on human rights says everyone has the freedom to "manifest his religion... in public." Once the law is applied, France may be taken before the European court. But maybe there is no intention of letting it be applied. So deep is the trauma caused by Le Pen's success in the first round of the presidential elections two years ago that the immediate purpose of the new law may be simply to neutralise the National Front in the March regional elections. Then, since the law does not come into force until September, there are a few months to revise or even forget it.
"The objective of the law," Chirac declared, "is to guarantee freedom for everyone." Except, of course, for the girls who want to wear a headscarf. All through the debate, the spokespeople for democracy in France have said the fault lies with Muslim males, yet the new law doesn't target them. It's the men who hassle young women if they wear "provocative" French clothing; but now if girls wear "provocative" Muslim clothing, the French authorities will deny them free education. But these girls are not the core of militant Islam. They are simply being used, like the models in advertisements, to sell the French an idea. In France, when you want to sell something, you use a woman.
French politicians are pushing the idea that cherished republican values are being eroded, that France risks falling into the hands of militant Islam, its ranks swollen to a fabricated 7m. To prevent this imminent catastrophe, therefore, everyone must unite behind the president. It has worked. The idea was sold well: to the commission headed by Chirac's close friend Bernard Stasi, which didn't want to hear the truth from the street but only from like-minded worthies; to the rudderless socialists, who were handed the merest of concessions to guarantee their voting with the government. But it is absurd to claim that a handful of schoolgirls pose a threat to Laïcitéor even that it is threatened by militant male Islam, which represents only a fraction of all French Muslims, themselves now more accurately estimated at 5 per cent of the population of France.
The real threat comes from the far right, whose ascent brought such shame to France in the last presidential elections. Its very existence is so embarrassing (its policies really do annihilate republican values) that Chirac has a problem confronting it head on. If the National Front does well in the approaching regional elections it will be another blow to what is already the run-up to the 2007 elections.