When the French historians of our epoch apply their magnifying glasses to the momentous developments of the first two months of this year, most of them, I think, are likely to conclude that the decisive factor leading to the historic National Assembly vote of February 10—when a massive majority of 494 deputies, compared with only 36 opposed (with 31 abstentions), voted to ban the wearing of “manifestly ostensible” religious insignia in state schools—was an instinctive, gut reaction to an act of Islamic provocation that had occurred three weeks before.

The French, as is well known, are a people of rouspéteurs, of viscerally constituted malcontents and gripers, ever ready to “descend into the street” in order to give public expression to their grievances.  So ingrained a national habit has this desire to let off sonorous steam become that, nowadays, hardly a week goes by in Paris without the staging of one or more demonstrations—regarded by the police as a sacrosanct “right” enjoyed by French citizens—which effectively tie traffic into static knots on major boulevards and streets on both sides of the Seine.  Compared with the huge turnouts that disgruntled schoolteachers, railway and other trade-union workers, public functionaries, overworked hospital nurses, ecologists, environmentalists, and antinuclear Greens of every kind, as well as small armies of the unemployed eager to protest the plight of homeless immigrants are capable of mobilizing—with banner-waving cohorts that may involve more than 100,000 chanting or vociferating participants—the demonstration organized in Paris by Muslim militants on January 17, which is estimated to have mobilized little more than 7,000, was, in terms of numbers, relatively unimportant.  What shocked so many Parisians and millions of TV viewers, however, was the sight of carefully segregated ranks of headscarved girls and women who, while chanting the now classic refrain—“Ni frère, ni mari, le foulard on l’a choisi!” (“Neither brother nor husband, the scarf we have chosen”)—were “protected” on both flanks by a masculine service d’ordre and led by a megaphone-wielding, antisemitic rabble-rouser named Mohamed Latrèche, the founder and leader of the Parti des Musulmans de France, who repeatedly denounced President Jacques Chirac and robustly declared (among other things) that those “who insult us must be terrorized politically.”

If the wearing of the headscarf had been an isolated phenomenon, the problem might have been solved on an informal school-by-school basis—which was more or less the attitude of “conciliation” adopted in this controversy by French Catholic bishops.  In fact, however, the wearing of the headscarf was simply the opening wedge of an increasingly insidious Islamic assault on France’s contemporary mode de vie—now including, for example, the demand that school gymnasiums and swimming pools be strictly segregated.  In a word, it at last began to dawn on “moderate” French politicians—whether Socialists or conservatives—that what they were now confronted with was nothing less than a subversive Islamic offensive aimed at turning the clock of “progress” back by reestablishing the subordinate role of women in French society, by challenging values which, in sport as in so much else, the French, like their European neighbors, have inherited from the ancient Greeks.

(It is interesting to note that, in April 1998, replying to a question raised by Jean-Pierre Chevènement, at that time France’s minister of the interior, Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, the supreme imam of the Al-Azhar university mosque in Cairo, declared that, if “the French state regards the wearing of the veil in the lycées to be contrary to its traditions, it has the right to do so,” adding that “the most important thing for our religion is that a Moslem woman be decently clad.”)

Fascinating in the variety of their nuances though so many French opinions on this controversial subject were, it is fair to say that many of the debates produced more heat than light.  Nothing, indeed, more dramatically illustrated the widespread ignorance of—not to say the casual indifference to—basic Muslim realities on the part of both politicians and the general public than the extraordinary vagueness of the existing demographic estimates.  The reason for this—a typical illustration of the multicultural “drift” that has so often been the driving ideological force behind all-too-casual French “thinking” about problems of Muslim immigration—is that, in 1972, the French government, in a clumsy effort to clear itself of the slightest suspicion of being “racist,” decreed that henceforth in census-taking, no specific reference would be made to an individual’s ethnic origin or religious faith.  As a result, there are simply no reliable statistics as to exactly how many Muslims are presently living in France.

When, recently, Nicolas Sarkozy—the bustling minister of the interior who has been tireless in his efforts to establish a working consensus between the present French government and the diverse religious factions that divide members of the Islamic “community”—declared that there are “5 to 6 million Moslems in France,” he may well have been guilty of exaggeration: Even though his motives were radically different from those of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who regularly trots out the figure of eight million to back up his claim that “aliens” such as these constitute a major menace to a traditionally Catholic country and should—many if not most of them—be sent back to their lands of origin.

Last December, French demographer Michèle Tribalat created a minor sensation by openly challenging the usually accepted figure of five to six million Muslims in the weekly magazine L’Express.  According to her calculations, undertaken on the basis of a “family survey” involving 390,480 persons, the real figure is closer to 3.7 million, not all of whom are practicing Muslims.  She cited a survey, dating from 1992, which revealed that 30 percent of adults aged 20 to 29 and born of two Muslim parents declared that they had no religious affiliation.  In another survey, conducted three years later, only one third of the “presumed” Muslims interviewed declared that they regularly attended the Friday service at a mosque.

How have the figures evolved since then?  No one apparently knows, the subject being still enveloped in a demographic fog.  What, on the other hand, is all too well known has been the catastrophic decline in Catholic fervor and attendance.  In 1950, Michèle Tribalat pointed out, 40 percent of French men and women still claimed to be regular churchgoers.  Today, the figure has declined to eight percent of France’s “Catholic population.”  Of the 40,000 parishes that exist, only one in four now boasts a resident priest.  The Muslims may have only 900 mosques—with 600 more sheds, garages, depots, and cellars of various kinds that serve as makeshift houses of worship—but they tend to be filled on Fridays.  It is this troubling awareness of religious weakness, as opposed to what is regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a dynamic, increasingly aggressive, and demanding faith, that explains the growing alarm that is now felt by many French men and women who are not themselves churchgoers.

Last March, in a characteristically bold move, Nicolas Sarkozy turned up at a huge Muslim jamboree staged in the giant hangars of the onetime Le Bourget Airport, north of Paris.  The unexpected appearance of the minister of the interior was enthusiastically cheered by many of the headscarved Muslim women present, but when, in an impromptu speech, Sarkozy bravely declared that, to obtain identity cards, they would have to observe the prevailing rules for everyone and have themselves photographed bareheaded, he was almost booed off the podium.

Though presently regarded as the most popular politician in France, Sarkozy has been criticized for wishing to move too fast—not least of all in dealing with France’s Islamic dilemma.  In a devastating book—La République des lâches (The Republic of Cowards)—criticizing France’s politicians for 40 years of successive vacillations and shortsighted ineptitudes in dealing with the problems posed by Islam in France, Rachid Kaci, himself of Algerian Kabyle origin, likened the various warring factions of the Muslim “community” in France to a veritable “witches’ cauldron.”  Sarkozy was thus recklessly overconfident in believing that he could improve matters by establishing a genuine working relationship between the French government and France’s Muslim “community” by creating a Conseil français du culte musulman (French Council for the Muslim Cult).  Officially headed by Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Muslim Institute of Paris’s Grand Mosque, this 41-member supreme council was supposed to reflect his “moderate” views.  When close to 4,000 qualified representatives from 995 different mosques and places of worship all over France had cast their votes, however, it became distressingly apparent that, with only five supporters, Boubakeur had been overwhelmed by a Moroccan-backed National Federation (16 seats) and even more portentously for the long-term future by the so-called Union des Organisations islamiques de France (with 14 seats), known to be closely linked to Europe’s tentacular Muslim Brotherhood and financed by Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, the supreme council vigorously deplored the “spirit and general tone” of the report that the 20-man presidential commission appointed to examine the issue finally published, after six months of interviews and deliberations, shortly before Christmas.  As Thierry Portes pointed out in a Figaro commentary, whereas the entire thrust of the Stasi Commission’s report was to have the state assure absolute neutrality toward all forms of religious faith in the administration of its public schools, what the leaders of the council wanted was a form of “laïcité” (a “secular setup”) in which each religious community could go on asserting its essential difference—in other words, precisely that tendency to place one’s religious allegiance above one’s loyalty to France that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin had denounced as early as the previous May as a deplorable form of divisive “communautarisme.”

In a politely worded article published in the January 21 issue of Le Monde, Bernard Stasi—a liberal Catholic of mixed Italian and Cuban parentage—took Pope John Paul II gently to task for having indirectly suggested that France was one of those European countries which had been manifesting an “attitude that could imperil an effective respect for freedom of religion”:

A law that prohibits students at school from wearing overly blatant religious insignia cannot, it seems to me, be regarded as an attack on freedom of religion.


In France, as in other countries, the school is the place where children, where adolescents are taught the principles, the values upon which the unity of the nation is founded, irrespective of ethnic, spiritual, and political differences.

It is thus normal, and indeed desirable, that within school precincts the symbols of those differences, no matter how respectable they may be, should to a certain extent be muted.

It is thus in the best conditions that the apprenticeship of citizenship is effected, it is thus that a nation’s unity is forged.

This was also—though Stasi did not say so explicitly—a repudiation of the fateful step taken by France’s prestigious Council of State in October 1979, when, reacting to the first headscarf “scandal”—the exclusion of three headscarf-wearing schoolgirls in the town of Creil, north of Paris—it decided to “reverse” what up till then had been official French policy by siding with the “victims,” in the now clearly mistaken belief that this act of multicultural appeasement would restore peace and harmony to French public schools.