Should the ‘veil’ be banned in higher education?

It seems that the French never tire of debating the role of religion in public life. Or perhaps the concept of laïcité, a uniquely French model of secularism, just keeps tangling them up in political knots.

The most recent dispute over the wearing of the Islamic veil by French university students has once again laid bare the problems and paradoxes of a nation struggling to apply a revered historical principle to a rapidly changing social environment. It also reveals how the discourse and practice of laïcité have become caught in a time warp.

In early August, the French daily newspaper Le Monde made public “an alarmist report and polemic proposition” prepared by the Secular Mission of France’s High Council for Integration, or HCI.

Based on interviews with faculty, administrators and others, the study claimed to have found increasing incidents that threatened laïcité and left university authorities searching for a solution.

Counted among these were Muslim students refusing to remove the Islamic veil in mixed-sex sports activities, Christian evangelicals and neo-Baptists criticising Darwinian theory of evolution in favour of creationism, and others disputing course content or rejecting the writings of Voltaire, Pascal or Camus on religious grounds.

Not intended for immediate release, the ‘confidential’ report was submitted last April to the Observatory on Secularism, a 15-member advisory committee reactivated by the François Hollande administration and made up of legislators, philosophers, researchers and jurists.

Among the report’s 12 proposals, the most significant called for extending to public universities a 2004 law prohibiting any “signs or clothing ostensibly manifesting a religious affiliation” in public primary and secondary schools.

Official responses were mixed, even within the governing socialist party. Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a firm defender of laïcité, found the university proposal “worthy of interest”. The president of the observatory, Jean-Louis Bianco, seemed dismissive, noting that the question was not in the observatory’s “work plan”.

Some government and education leaders on the political ‘left’ expressed more definitive opposition to yet another law aimed at the Islamic veil.

Geneviève Fioraso, minister of higher education and research, warned against creating a controversy where there was none. She made clear that her priority rested with the young women wearing the veil. For them, she told the press, education is an “element of emancipation”.

Jean-Loup Salzmann, president of the Conference of University Presidents, or CPU, likewise opposed adopting a new law and disclaimed any worsening of the situation within French universities.

Daycare worker case

The unofficial release of the report coincided with a widely contested court decision striking down the firing of a female daycare worker who insisted on wearing the burqa completely covering her face and body.

Contrary to lower court rulings, the appeals court found that the woman was not in violation of a 2011 law prohibiting the concealment of one’s face in ‘public’ spaces; the daycare centre was ‘private’ even though it served the public and received public funds.

Hollande, despite his general support for a laïcité of ‘appeasement’, roundly disagreed with the ruling, as did numerous public intellectuals and public leaders and an overwhelming segment of the French public. While neither the current proposal nor the 2004 or 2011 laws explicitly mention Islam, Islamic practices are well understood to be the target.

That is not to conflate merely covering one’s head with concealing one’s entire face. Reasonable minds may disagree over the social drawbacks and personal implications of individuals interacting in public life without revealing their facial identity.

In contrast, at least from an outsider’s perspective, the hijab or headscarf is a far more benign and moderate departure from the norms of French mainstream society than the full burqa. Whether the government should ban either is another question.

Different visions

Roiling beneath this endless debate are two visions of laïcité.

One, most notably identified with the sociologist Jean Baubérot, espouses a fluid and open interpretation with “room in the joints” to accommodate the current realities of French diversity while respecting core principles of equality, government neutrality and tolerance.

The other tenaciously embraces a traditional model, defining clear boundaries of public and private spaces and progressively seeking to encroach on the latter.

Both approaches invoke Republican ideals and more pointedly a 1905 law separating church and state. One focuses on the law’s explicit guarantees to ‘freedom of conscience’ and the ‘free exercise of religion’, the other on permissible limits to preserve ‘public order’.

Public opinion seems to fall in the more traditional camp. According to the French Institute for Public Opinion, close to 78% of the French population oppose the wearing of the veil in French universities, with 18% indifferent and only 4% in favour.

Even among left-leaning elected officials, opposition runs to 67%. The numbers are surprisingly close to the 89% overall who oppose the veil worn in public primary and secondary schools.

Education ban?

With public opposition running so high and politicians ever mindful of their political futures, the ‘Islamic veil’ conceivably could be banned throughout the French public education system, from primary school through university.

Such a blanket prohibition necessarily raises the question ‘Why?’ Based on what concerns or more directly on what fears? And at what cost to the integration of the six million Muslims living in France, or to the educational opportunities afforded young Muslim women who are not necessarily forced to wear the veil, as commonly believed, but do so voluntarily for any number of reasons?

Looked at objectively, the proposed law may very well be a solution in search of a problem, as the CPU president and the minister of higher education and research have suggested. The HCI report admits that the incidents described were not universal and that many university officials were able to address them effectively.

Even taking the reported magnitude at face value, there is no obvious causal relation between the alleged findings and the wearing of ostensible religious symbols or clothing, including the Islamic veil. Would these incidents disappear simply by removing the symbols themselves from public view? Undoubtedly they would not.

What really seems to be at issue here is the visibility of the veil as a symbol of a religion out of sync with France’s Judaeo-Christian narrative, and the fears it raises of opening the door to fundamentalist elements and to dramatic changes in a country where tradition and rituals are deeply valued.

Of course, banning the veil would drive out the most observant female students, which in turn would likely cut down on the number of requests and demands for other religious exceptions. Obviously that explains the decrease in ‘incidents’ in primary and secondary schools since the 2004 law was adopted, which the HCI report favourably notes was a direct outcome.

But unlike Muslim girls who have the option of attending publicly financed Catholic schools where they can freely wear the veil, university students have no workable alternative. For many, it’s either remove the veil and thereby compromise their beliefs, attend one of the few private and largely Catholic universities at greater cost, or remain at home and become more religiously and culturally isolated.

For some, and again the most observant, only the last option would prove feasible. Yet short-circuiting their education would be counterproductive, not only from a personal but also from a societal perspective. A university education exposes these women to diverse points of view and ultimately fosters their entry into the professional world, bringing them in closer contact with mainstream values.

If gender equality is truly a concern driving policies on Islamic dress, as some defenders claim, then the state should rather provide whatever reasonable accommodations possible to educate these young women to the fullest extent. The investment would pay individual and collective dividends into the next generation and beyond.

As the HCI report reminds us, higher education is a ‘space’ for the “confrontation of ideas and opinions”. Implicit in that view is the understanding that university students are sufficiently mature to make critical judgments.

And so while one may justify removing religious symbols from primary and secondary school classrooms based on the impressionability of young students and fears of undue influence, that argument falls short in the case of the university.

In fact, unless there is concrete evidence that the wearing of the veil “infringes on teaching or research” or “disturbs the public order”, for Muslim women it could be a form of cultural expression guaranteed within universities under French law and under the European Convention on Human Rights.


Beyond the questionable merits, there is another aspect to this controversy that is indeed confounding. Both the HCI proposal and the surrounding debate seem blind to the forces of globalisation, transnationalism and European integration that inevitably will loosen the French perspective on religion in the ‘public’ sphere.

Among most of the French and especially those of a certain age, including public officials, laïcité is a worldview dating back in spirit to the beginnings of the French republic and revolutionary hostility toward the Catholic church in its alignment with the monarchy.

Relations with the church undeniably have eased. The state in fact oversees the maintenance of Catholic churches and pays teacher salaries in most Catholic schools. Yet for the average French person, the commitment to religious neutrality tied to equal citizenship remains all but ingrained in the DNA. Even the discussion of religion is generally taboo.

That being said, a new generation of ‘world citizens’ is poised to change this national mindset. Even now, among those under 35 years of age, 63% oppose the veil in French universities, as compared to 86% of those over 65. That difference will grow wider in the years to come for a number of reasons.

As the European Union continues to extend the Erasmus programme, sending scores of French college-age students (33,000 in 2011-12) across national borders to promote intercultural understanding and a unified Europe, those young people, some destined to be the nation’s future leaders, will become more accustomed to outward manifestations of religion in the classroom and in public life.

At the same time, as French universities expand courses and whole programmes offered in English, students and faculty from abroad will inject contrasting ideas into classroom discussion – a fact that the HCI report turns on its head to support more affirmative teachings on laïcité.

And as increasing numbers of university graduates leave France in search of job opportunities or new vistas, some of them returning with non-French spouses and dual-nationality children, they too will bring a fresh look to religious neutrality.

Meanwhile, as the Muslim population gradually integrates into French society, and the French mainstream becomes more diverse through immigration, religious accommodations will become more imperative and prudent in the interests of social stability and cohesion.

For now, it remains to be seen how competing approaches to laïcité weigh in, and ultimately win out, on the question of religious signs and clothing in French public universities.

What is predictable, nonetheless, is that dominant views on laïcité and particularly on the hijab or headscarf, are destined to change and perhaps more quickly than the current debate would lead us to believe.

* Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang professor of law at St John’s University School of Law in the United States. Her most recent book is True American: Language, identity, and the education of immigrant children. Harvard University Press.


Ridiculous law stamping on people's freedom of expression.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page