I realize that I have a love/hate relationship with the French. In the mid-1990s, I hated them, like most other Australians, when they resumed their nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Their arrogance was so shameless and infuriating! It took me a few years to forgive them for that. Then last year, I decided to subscribe to the English language version of Le Monde diplomatique on the web. I greatly enjoyed reading that alternative perspective on world events. (This is hardly relevant, but I'll never forget watching Amelie in the cinema and being in a crowd that spontaneously clapped at the end of the film.) The high point of good feelings towards the French occured during those evil months just before the Iraq war, I was so proud of the way that at France and Germany resisted the US and the UK in the UN security council. The more that the Neocons hated the French, the more I loved them. When they childishly campaigned to have French Fries renamed as Freedom Fries, I developed a preference for Evian water and French wine.
But now things are changing again. I am absolutely appalled by the French Government's plans to ban the wearing of head scarves by Muslim schoolgirls. Do they think that this help French Muslims to be better integrated in French society? It will do the opposite, and will drive Muslims out of public schools into private schools.
I worry that the following is going to be a little controversial, but I'm a blogger, not a politician or journalist, so I'm just going to write what I'm thinking. ...
A Muslim female wearing a head scarf is not somebody who is wanting to make a religious statement. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that wearing the head scarf is a matter of personal modesty. To force them to remove it is analagous (although definitely not identical) to forcing a Western woman to take off her shirt and go around in just a bra. It is wrong to use the machinery of the state to tell women what they can or cannot wear.
Of course, there are lots of slippery slope counter-arguments here. Like, well if we accommodate their scarves, do we also have to accommodate their preference that Muslim women & girls only be treated by female health care staff? Then what's next - gender segregated supermarket checkout lanes like what they have in Saudi Arabia?
These are difficult issues that intersect gender, faith, race and culture and I'm not going to pretend to have an easy answer. You need to balance the harm of going against a minority's preference with how easy or difficult it might be for society to accomodate their needs. Clearly it would be very difficult for a Western nation to accommodate certain Muslims by setting up a completely gender-segregated health care system. There are enough problems in health care without throwing this into the mix.
On the other hand, allowing school children to wear head scarves is hardly even an accommodation. It takes no effort for the French to allow them to wear a head scarf and a lot of effort to stop them. Then there's the moral issue of turning innocent school girls into criminals for just dressing in the way that seems appropriate to them. If their headscarves were provocatively emblazoned with the face of Osama bin Laden, or had words proclaiming that all non-Muslim infidels will burn in hell - that would be different.
Just because I don't agree that Muslim's head scarves should be banned, it doesn't mean that I like head scarves. I would be happier if nobody ever felt the need to wear one. I agree with the Feminist arguments that head scarves send the wrong message - to both women and men. But to take this additional step and use the machinery of the state to force children to comply with this opinion is wrong. It will fail too, because once something like this is enacted into law - the substantive issue (concerning head scarves) fades away and the question of trampling upon a minority's rights then becomes the only issue.
So amazingly, this is one issue where I have a similar point of view to the Bush administration's, even if I think that their concern for French Muslims is highly hyprocritical given the fact that a Muslim in the US who is seen carrying an almanac is likely to be detained and questioned.
Of course, the law will also prohibit the wearing of yarmulkes (Jewish skullcaps) and possibly Sikh turbans [link to Ny Times, registration required].
I have no idea what will become of this. I think that the French are more likely to dig in their heels in the face of international criticism. It just shows you that nations, like people, can be inconsistent and do both good and bad. It helps me realize that the US (or Australia or pick whatever country you're mad at) isn't always wrong about everything, and that France (or Germany or pick a country which seems to get it) can do bad things too. There is no perfect country which can be an example to the rest of the world.