Integrating minorities, apart from the Iranian response!

The war of the headscarves

Feb 5th 2004 | EVRY
From The Economist print edition

France and Britain have radically different approaches to ethnic and religious diversity. Each can learn from the other

BY THE grassy banks of the Seine, under a vast white marquee the size of a football pitch, 4,000 sheep are bleating. In the muddy field outside, a makeshift sign has been nailed to a wooden post: “Aid-el-Kebir”. This middling town south of Paris, home to some 15,000 Muslims (nearly a third of its population), is preparing for the Islamic festival of Eid.

The sheep-slaughter, which used to take place in living rooms, has been highly organised. Each family identifies and tags its own sheep. An official Muslim sacrificateur dispatches it, and each family then takes its animal home for the feast. In a country that is battling to protect the separation of religion and state, the entire event has been run by the town hall. “The French must understand that France is changing,” says a local official. “Islam has its place here now.”

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Immigration and asylum


The BBC has information on the riots in 2001 and summarises official reports into them. Britain's Home Office reports on the forthcoming first citizenship ceremony. See also Jacques Chirac, France's Ministry of the Interior, the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (all sites in French) and Muslim Welfare House.

Evry is particularly ethnically diverse. Some 40 different creeds, colours, faiths or tongues crowd into the town's rain-streaked tower-blocks. Croissants are on sale at the local boulangerie, mint tea and foufou at the halal butcher, and the “Afro-Coiffure” has skin-whitening cream and hair extensions on special offer. In the local paper, death announcements speak of “Pierre” and “Charles”; the births are of “Moussa” and “Fatih”. Half the town's housing is publicly owned, over three times the French average. Joblessness is high, particularly among young men. “It's not the Bronx,” suggests an official, but some estates “are a bit like a ghetto.”

While the French remain mesmerised by the proposed ban on the Muslim headscarf in state schools, other matters have preoccupied Evry. Last year, for instance, the mayor kicked up a fuss when the Muslim managers of a local Franprix supermarket stopped selling alcohol and pork. Local French shoppers, he argued, could not do without their saucisson and red wine. In vain: the supermarket is now another halal butcher.

In general, however, Evry wears multi-culturalism with confidence. It hosts evenings of Algerian poetry or Malian music. It is home to the biggest mosque in France. A multicultural team of youth workers—“Hamid, Bachir, Souleymane, Claire and Pétroline”—is on hand to get jobless young people back to work, with the help of “positive discrimination”. And ritual slaughter is now an official activity.

Evry illustrates clearly the issues troubling France in dealing with ethnic diversity. At root are difficult questions of identity, social mobility and religious expression. In particular, Islam is challenging the strict form of secularism, known as laïcité, which marks France out from most other western democracies. Under this doctrine, equality before the law of all citizens, regardless of their private beliefs, is supposed to be guaranteed by barring religion from the public arena. Even the “So help me God” intoned by incoming American presidents would be unthinkable in France.

Under the version of history which all French schools teach, the rigorously secular character of the state is a hard-won victory against the dark forces of obscurantism, anti-Semitism and authoritarian Catholicism which previously held sway. In theory, the involvement of Evry town hall in sheep-slaughter flies in the face of secularist principle. In practice, it shows increasing pragmatism and accommodation in ordinary French life.

At national level, however, debate has been reduced to a single issue: President Jacques Chirac's proposed ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf and other “conspicuous” religious symbols in state schools. Next week parliament will vote on the new law, which enjoys wide cross-party support. After that, further laws to protect secularism in public hospitals and public offices are expected.

Outside France the headscarf ban has caused bafflement and indignation, and not only in the Arab world. Yet French support for the ban remains strong (see chart), and unites unlikely bedfellows. Secularists join ranks with feminists, who are dismayed that daughters now choose to wear the veil their mothers battled to discard. Politically, the ban is seen as a way to take support from the far-right National Front.

It is also regarded as a message to fundamentalist Islamists, whose certainties are seducing disaffected young French Muslims. The government stresses that its new law refers to all religions, but nobody is fooled. How many schoolchildren turn up to class wearing crucifixes of a “manifestly excessive dimension”? “It's not the crucifix or the kippa that is targeted,” insists Khalil Merroun, the rector of the Evry mosque, “but Islam.”


Many French people feel deeply uncomfortable about defiant, assertive Islam. France, after all, is home to Europe's biggest Muslim population (outside Turkey): some 5m, next to 3m in Germany and 1.5m in Britain. The country has about 1,600 mosques or prayer halls. Many young French Muslims find no difficulty in balancing private faith with French secularism. But an increasingly vocal minority, many of whom speak no Arabic and freely mix Nike trainers with the hijab, finds such compromise unacceptable.

This ban is widely seen as a test of what obligations modern France is willing to, or can, impose on its ethnically and ideologically diverse citizens. Either it can attempt a compromise, and allow Islam and other ethnic groups and religions a public voice, on condition that they at least pay lip-service to the secular republic. This, crudely, is the position of Nicolas Sarkozy, the outspoken interior minister, who has set up an official body, the French Council of the Muslim Faith, to that end. Or France can continue to try to defend its integrationist tradition and refuse compromise, as Mr Chirac is trying to do with the ban.

For those defending the existing model, the fear is that giving in to one demand will lead to many more. If, for religious reasons, women are allowed separate hours in municipal swimming pools, will the country end up separating whites and blacks? On this argument, there seems nothing to stop France sliding towards communautarisme, a dreaded state of affairs in which ethnic or religious groups could freely segregate themselves and form “states within a state” with their own rules and values. “I refuse to take France in that direction,” Mr Chirac said when announcing the ban. Not least because it leads, in French minds, to Britain's laisser-faire multiculturalism.


For French observers, the dire consequences of British sloppiness are clear to see in Finsbury Park, an edgy area of north London. There, the local mosque is boarded up with corrugated iron. The storming of the mosque by armed police a year ago, the arrest of seven men suspected of terrorism and the deportation order for its former imam, Abu Hamza al-Masri, confirmed every French fear about Britain's multiculturalism. “I told you so,” was the reaction across the Channel.

Yet Mr Hamza's mosque was a very odd place, not least for its extremism. Far more typical of Islam in Britain is the nearby Muslim Welfare House, which has been overflowing ever since moderate local faithful got fed up with Mr Hamza's excesses. The centre supplies English-language and Arabic lessons, advice on job-seeking, and youth and homework clubs, as well as holding weekly prayers—all with the help of an annual grant from the British government. It not only serves traditional populations of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, but newer groups of Algerians and Albanians too. In France, this might be regarded as state-sponsored ethnic segregation. At the Muslim Welfare House they consider it integration. “We do the grass-roots job the government can't,” comments an official.

The British model of integration consists, essentially, of not worrying about it. Where the French have an official High Council for Integration, designed to ensure that the process takes place, the British shy away from the term. Ethnic minority groups are not only left alone by the state to practise their faith, language or culture, but are encouraged and subsidised to do so. In one or two schools, the wearing of headscarves has caused trouble; but this is seen as a problem for school governors, not politicians. A vast majority disapproves of headscarf bans for impeccably liberal reasons.

Britain does not use quotas or American-style affirmative-action programmes to enforce multiculturalism. It relies, in part, on the routine acceptance of it, and also on strong laws against discrimination. The onus is now on employers to prove that they have not discriminated, rather than on employees to show that they have been treated unfairly. Fired by a self-interested desire to protect reputation, private companies scramble to adopt “diversity” programmes as a mark of good citizenship. France has none of this. In secularist French theory, the principle of rigorous, colour-blind equality before the law should remove the need for “positive discrimination”.

The British and French models for dealing with diversity have deep roots in history. The French model stems not only from secularism but from the country's revolutionary ideal, which enshrines the equal rights and obligations of citizens as individuals. The model in Britain, which is an assembly of nations, has always allowed a more pragmatic, looser connection to the centre. Moreover, Commonwealth citizens arrived in Britain with the right to vote. Geographical concentration propped up that voting power. So bargaining rights—over the building of mosques, the introduction of halal food in schools, or railway-station signs in Urdu—were won more easily.

These differences acknowledged, is British multiculturalism as wrong-headed as the French suggest? The British model has at least ensured the visibility of ethnic Britons in public life, such as TV news-reading. French television news, by contrast, is almost lily-white. France may celebrate its multi-ethnic national football team; Zinedine Zidane was voted the most admired Frenchman last year. But such exceptions, mostly in arts or sports, stand out. France's emphasis on integration would be more compelling if more of its minorities had become public figures.

In terms of political representation, Britain scores better. At the latest count, there were 12 ethnic-minority members of Parliament and 24 such members of the House of Lords. The French National Assembly contains no Muslims, and the black faces are those from French overseas constituencies. Even the French Socialist Party, with its links to anti-racism movements, has no black deputies.

But surely the British model leads to more isolation and segregation? Britain has highly concentrated minorities. Two entire London boroughs, Brent and Newham, now have a non-white majority. In some primary schools, white faces are non-existent. Yet the French model has not averted segregation. It is hard to measure, because minorities are not monitored. But on certain estates, like those in Evry, white faces are also rare.

Racial tension is harder to judge. Britain was marked by riots in the northern cities of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001. An official report blamed in part the “parallel lives” and “separation of communities” in the towns. London, however, where a third of the population is now from an ethnic minority, is visibly multi-racial, and the capital has not seen a big race riot for many years.

France, to its credit, has also averted mass race riots. Racial tension, however, shows up in other ways. The far-right National Front, which grabbed second place in the first round of the presidential election in 2002, is expected to do well again in regional elections in March. It campaigns heavily on an anti-immigrant platform. In addition, anti-Semitic attacks in France continue, widely blamed on the influence of Islamic extremism and anti-Zionism.

And what of religious fanaticism? It may be easier to plot, preach and disappear in London than in Paris. Yet intelligence sources suggest that the two countries have comparable, though different, levels of activity. Only last month, six people, including an imam, were arrested in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyons, on suspicion of terrorism. France acts as an important “supply base” for finance and recruitment to the terrorist front, many of whose members move on to London and thence to Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The more the traditional mosques in France are watched, the more the networks disappear into clandestine prayer halls and corner shops. In short, a tradition of integration has not sheltered France from extremism.

Where does all this leave the balance sheet? Crudely, the British model seems to produce more social mobility, though perhaps at the price of greater extremist activity and complacency about its entrenched ghettos. The French model may give less space to radicalism, but fails to promote social mobility, and is no guard against ghettos forming. Evry's mayor puts it well when he comments that France is accumulating the disadvantages of British multiculturalism without the advantages.

The difficulty lies in deciding what to do about it. Current policy carries risks. The headscarf ban, designed to strengthen French secularism, could end up threatening it: the ban plays into the hands of Islamist groups, who claim that Islam is being stigmatised. At the same time, Mr Sarkozy's new Muslim council brings its own dangers. The more Muslim leaders once considered extremist co-operate with the government, the more young jobless Muslims could turn to other voices outside the council, such as those behind the recent march against the ban in Paris. Tariq Ramadan, for instance, the Swiss grandson of the founder of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, is fast becoming a hero on run-down French housing estates.

Some are beginning to advocate a more radical rethink of the current French model. There are stirrings, for instance, of a public debate on “positive discrimination”, despite Mr Chirac's declaration that such thinking is “unacceptable”. If waiting for individual merit to rise to the top is not working, argues Mr Sarkozy, then some sort of hand-up should be considered. The idea of favouring groups, though, makes the French tie themselves in knots. How do you discriminate in favour of a group when the country doesn't recognise any, and all are equal before the law?

Quietly, practical ways are being found around the theoretical objections. Sciences-Po, a respected college in Paris, lets schoolchildren living in certain “educational priority zones” skip the fiercely competitive entrance exam. Most happen to be non-white. “It's illegitimate to hide behind republican principles and do nothing,” argues Richard Descoings, the college's head. Towns like Evry are finding ways to support Muslim activities and skirt the official ban on state finance and religion. Indeed, Evry's mayor argues that France should explicitly help to finance legitimate mosques, in order to avoid the radicalism that comes in from the Gulf and North Africa. Some 90% of France's 900 or so official and self-proclaimed imams are foreign-trained and sponsored.

Perhaps the most devastating criticism of the rigidity of current French policy was delivered in a recent report from the Institut Montaigne, a think-tank. It talked of France's “rampant ethnic segregation” and “veritable ghettos”. The country, it said, “scarcely recognises itself as a pluri-ethnic nation”. It urged France to “recognise the reality of minorities”, and, most important, to put in place a programme designed to reflect ethnic “diversity”, including positive discrimination.

The British, too, are beginning to recognise the drawbacks of their own approach. David Blunkett, the home secretary, is introducing citizenship classes to ensure that Britons can at least speak English and know a little of their history—not hitherto much of a concern. Quite sensibly, there is more talk of the need to strengthen common glue so that differences can continue to flourish. Trevor Phillips, the black head of the Commission for Racial Equality, says he wants to rehabilitate the term “integration”. “People think we tolerate any old nonsense because it's part of their culture: that's nonsense,” he says. “To make the idea of a British Muslim a reality means paying as much attention to “British” as to “Muslim”.