Seldom in France’s recent history has the difference between what is truly urgent and important and what the public is concerned with been so apparent as during the past twelvemonth. Last October, at a time when international attention was focused on the flood tide of East German refugees that was surging through the breach in the Iron Curtain opened by the Hungarians, the French were absorbed for weeks in a heated controversy as to whether Moslem schoolgirls should or should not be permitted to wear a head shawl during class. Again, in May of this year, when Europeans all over the continent were anxiously watching to see what the first more or less free elections in decades were going to produce in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, French public opinion was so convulsed by the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in southern France that this outrage pushed every other kind of news into the background for days.

Far be it from me to suggest that there are never moments when it is best to “find great quarrel in a straw.” It is to France’s eternal honor that in the late 1890’s an uncompromising politician, Georges Clemenceau, and a famous novelist, Émile Zola, dared to turn the country upside down by frontally assaulting the military establishment because of a scandalously dishonest sentence passed on a humble captain, falsely accused of having acted as a spy for a foreign power. However, it would be absurd to compare the Dreyfus affair with what happened at Creil in October 1989 or near Carpentras last May, for were essentially molehills inflated overnight into “mediatic” mountains.

L’Affaire du foulard islamique began in early October of last year when the principal of a school in the town of Creil, some thirty miles north of Paris, brought pressure to bear on three schoolgirls, two of them of Moroccan, the third of Tunisian origin, who had decided not to remove their head shawls during class. An attempt to reach a compromise by allowing the girls to wear their foulards in the school’s corridors and during recreation “breaks,” but not in the classroom, broke down thanks to the intransigence of the parents, who insisted that this ban was an intolerable affront to the “cultural identity” of Islam. Before he knew quite what had happened to him, the unfortunate school principal found himself in the center of a national storm, in which inevitably the old familiar slogans of “racism,” “religious intolerance,” and “ethnic discrimination” were carelessly bandied about. And thus, at a time when France faces a major education crisis—with hideously overcrowded classrooms and lecture halls, a catastrophic dearth of teachers due to insufficient pay and steadily declining professional morale, and antiquated university campuses that are a national disgrace—the only thing that seemed to matter for weeks on end was whether or not schoolgirls of Moslem origin should be allowed to wear a classroom veil.

The controversy, raging through thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, brought to light a confusing diversity of opinion and revealed how troubled and unsettled, for France too, is the sociocultural problem of the “melting pot.” Sheikh Haddam, the rector of Paris’ largest mosque and generally regarded as the foremost Islamic authority in France, predictably declared himself “outraged” by the “discriminatory attitude” of the school principal at Creil, denying that the defiant wearing of the hidjeb—the correct appellation for what in Shiite Iran is known as the tchador—could be interpreted as a subtle form of “religious proselytism.” Daniel Youssouf Leclercq, former chairman of the National Federation of Moslems in France, insisted no less roundly that the veil was an “imperative of modesty,” pointing out that, far from being of exclusively Islamic inspiration, it had often been worn in traditional representations of the Virgin Mary. Alain Goldmann, the chief rabbi in Paris, expressed his own reprobation in forthright terms: “Those who refuse Moslem children the right to wear the tchador or Jewish children to wear the kippa are intolerant,” adding, “Today it is no longer the religiously inclined who are displaying intolerance, as they are so often blamed for doing, but laymen. The lay school should set the example of tolerance.”

Less trenchant was Cardinal Lustiger, the Catholic archbishop of Paris, who called on Moslems to “explain in precise fashion” if the wearing of the hidjeb was a religious prescription and why.” French socialists, who pride themselves on their ethnic tolerance and the “libertarian” attitudes they like to assume on every conceivable subject, were curiously divided on the issue. Well-known for her militant espousal of Third World causes, Danielle Mitterrand, the French president’s wife, defended the classroom foulard, and in so doing found herself for once at odds with her former associate and pro-Guevara guerrillero Regis Debray, who felt and feels that the secular and nondenominational character of French secondary schools must be preserved at all costs in the name of “republican principles.” The same line was taken by Jean-Pierre Chevenement, leader of a radically left-wing faction of the Socialist Party who is today minister of defense. Those, Chevenement warned, who over the past fifteen years “have wanted to sell us ‘the right to be different’ extol the charms of the ‘American model.’ But what they are preparing for us is not the United States—assuming that that would be desirable—but quite simply Lebanon!”

Being professionally committed to raising a huge (preferably rock concert) rumpus every time the occasion presents itself, Harlem Désir, the Creole founder of the rabble-rousing pressure-group S.O.S.-Racisme, naturally added his voice to the pro-veil hue and cry. Yet others asked why concealing one’s hair and ears beneath a shawl was intrinsically more dangerous and wicked than attending classes in blue jeans.

One answer, provided by an Islamic scholar named Courtellemont, was that the Koran does not specifically ordain the wearing of a head shawl, since the crucial 23 rd Sura (Verse 59) applies to the wives and daughters of the Prophet and the “wives of the faithful”—thus excluding unmarried schoolgirls—and refers furthermore to the wearing of the full-length haik, covering not only the head but the entire body down to the ankles. “Why” asked Courtellemont, “do people always forget to refer to the last sentence of this verse? If not because all fundamentalists, and this in all religions, only draw from holy texts that which interests their extremism?”

The same hostility to the wearing of the hidjeb in French classrooms was expressed by Gisèle Halimi, an ardently “progressive” lawyer who for years boldly defended the cause of Arab “rebels” and of an independent Algeria. She announced her resignation from Harlem Désir’s S.O.S.-Racisme, knowing only too well from personal experience what the wearing of the hidjeb means for the downtrodden mothers and daughters of Islam. As one of them, Fadela Ben Asmar, wrote in a letter published by Le Monde: “I was born in the Meghreb. After spending most of my life in France, I tried ‘to go home’ to find my family and my ‘identity.’ I could not endure it even for one year. Faced with the constraints of the Moslem woman’s inferior status and the rise of Islamic movements, I preferred to return to France.”

Of all the articles I have read on this subject, the only one deserving to be regarded as an “anthology piece” came from Alain Finkielkraut, a young French philosopher who once again displayed his flair for coming to grips with fundamental issues. In an article entitled “The Holy Alliance of the Clergies,” he took issue with the Grand Rabbi and came out unequivocally in favor of the “lay” school in the name of cultural tradition. The so-called “Islamic veil affair,” he argued, resembled the tumult aroused by Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in that:

they are two aspects of one and the same attitude, which can be summed up thus: ‘I support your demands in order the better to advance my own.’ In demanding the authorization of the veil in classrooms, the Rabbinate preventively denounces and intimidates every attempt to forbid the kippa or the punishment of students who do not come to school on Saturdays. As for the Catholic Church, now engaged in an enthusiastic and grandiose project of new evangelization, it has been more and more openly asserting the monopoly of religion over spiritual life.

There was a time, Finkielkraut went on, when French schoolchildren used to turn up in simple blouses or workmanlike aprons. Today they have been done away with. Instead—”Long live the tchador and modernity! In the name of tolerance, of individual freedom and of democracy on the march, social inequalities and communitarian loyalties exhibit themselves violently there where it was formerly possible to suspend them, in order to think of other things.”

The consequence of this intellectual abdication in the face of “ethnocentric” modernity has been to turn the classroom into a “juxtaposition of tribes.” The old-fashioned notion of “knowledge” having been subordinated to the dictates of cultural pluralism, schoolteachers in the field of the humanities

from now on have the mission of teaching each and every one the difference of the other. Instead of initiating students to that part of culture which transcends customs, they undertake to describe those customs. Instead of speaking of works that enlighten mankind as to its condition, they will talk of the kippa to those who wear the veil, and of the veil to those who wear the kippa; and for the combined joy of imams, rabbis, the Pope, and Danielle Mitterrand, the common world of human beings will thus be sacrificed to the highest value recognized by our waning century: respect of the Other.

The final “solution” to this problem proposed by Lionel Jospin, the French minister of education, and reluctantly adopted by Prime Minister Michel Rocard (who happens to be a Protestant), has been to kick the issue under the carpet in the hope that it will lie dormant, since only a handful of schoolgiris have so far shown themselves determined never to doff their veils in public. But it remains to be seen if this opportunistic side-stepping of the issue will work, at a time when fundamentalism is on the march in,North Africa and in other areas of the Moslem world. One thing, at any rate, is certain: sixty years ago the kind of incident that occurred at Creil would have been settled in a quarter of an hour, and there would have been no further talk of the foulard. But it is true that France then controlled an empire, and television had not yet been invented.

As for the “Carpentras affair,” it too was inflated by the media out of all proportion to its real significance, as an alarming indication that the French were turning into anti-Semitic racists. The very speed with which Pierre Joxe, the minister of the interior, hied himself over to Carpentras in a helicopter during the afternoon of May 10—the day on which the desecrated graves in the Jewish cemetery were discovered—was curiously reminiscent of the newspaper campaign he helped to fan against Defense Minister Charles Hernu during the tumultuous “Greenpeace affair” (autumn 1985). This time the primary object—to link the Carpentras profanations to some uncharitable remarks just made by Jean-Marie Le Pen about Jewish influence in the press in a direct cause-and-effect relationship—failed, for simple reasons of chronology. But Joxe’s success in unleashing a tidal wave of indignation, culminating in the most massive street demonstration Paris has seen in several years,’ may have exceeded his fondest expectations.

And the truth in all this? Well, one answer, I think, was provided several days later when three young “skinheads” were arrested in a town near Nantes for having desecrated some tombs in a Christian graveyard. No one in his right mind could have accused them of anti-Semitism. What had motivated their despicable action was clearly the kind of mindless Schadenfreude youths are prone to exhibit, further stimulated by what might be called a “Stavroghin complex”—the desire to scandalize for the heady thrill of scandal—and the realization that their action was likely to be given national publicity by the media.

In a word, what was involved—at Nantes and Carpentras—was an act not only of profanation, but of provocation: not only against a particular community or against “respectable” society, but against the notion of the divine and all that is held to be sacred. But this question of the “sacred” and of how it can be preserved, and civilization with it, in an age of declining faith—the problem that so preoccupied André Malraux during his final years—is so momentous that I shall have to return to it in a later letter.