Letter From Parisnby Curtis CatenTwo Triumphs ofn’Mediacracy’nSeldom in France’s recent history hasnthe difference between what is trulynurgent and important and what thenpublic is concerned with been so apparentnas during the past twelvemonth.nLast October, at a time when internationalnattention was focused on thenflood tide of East German refugees thatnwas surging through the breach in thenIron Curtain opened by the Hungarians,nthe French were absorbed for weeksnin a heated controversy as to whethernMoslem schoolgirls should or shouldnnot be permitted to wear a head shawlnduring class. Again, in May of this year,nwhen Europeans all over the continentnwere anxiously watching to see what thenfirst more or less free elections in decadesnwere going to produce in Czechoslovakia,nRomania, and Bulgaria,nFrench public opinion was so convulsednby the desecration of a Jewish cemeterynin southern France that this outragenpushed every other kind of news intonthe background for days.nFar be it from me to suggest thatnthere are never moments when it is bestnto “find great quarrel in a straw.” It is tonFrance’s eternal honor that in the laten1890’s an uncompromising politician,nGeorges Clemenceau, and a famousnnovelist, Emile Zola, dared to turn thencountry upside down by frontally assaultingnthe military establishment becausenof a scandalously dishonest sentencenpassed on a humble captain,nfalsely accused of having acted as a spynfor a foreign power. However, it wouldnbe absurd to compare the Dreyfus affairnwith what happened at Creil in Octobern1989 or near Carpentras last May, fornthe.se were essentially molehills inflatednovernight into “mediatic” mountains.nL’Affaire du foulard islamique begannin early October of last year whennthe principal of a school in the town ofnCreil, some thirty miles north of Paris,nbrought pressure to bear on threenschoolgids, two of them of Moroccan,nthe third of Tunisian origin, who hadn42/CHRONICLESnCORRESPONDENCEndecided not to remove their headnshawls during class. An attempt tonreach a compromise by allowing thengirls to wear their foulards in thenschool’s corridors and during recreationn”breaks,” but not in the classroom,nbroke down thanks to the intransigencenof the parents, who insisted that thisnban was an intolerable affront to then”cultural identity” of Islam. Before henknew quite what had happened to him,nthe unfortunate school principal foundnhimself in the center of a nationalnstorm, in which inevitably the old familiarnslogans of “racism,” “religiousnintolerance,” and “ethnic discrimination”nwere carelessly bandied about.nAnd thus, at a time when France facesna major education crisis — with hideouslynovercrowded classrooms and lecturenhalls, a catastrophic dearth ofnteachers due to insufficient pay andnsteadily declining professional morale,nand antiquated university campusesnthat are a national disgrace — the onlynthing that seemed to matter for weeksnon end was whether or not schoolgirlsnof Moslem origin should be allowed tonwear a classroom veil.nThe controversy, raging throughnthousands of newspaper and magazinenarticles, brought to light a confusingndiversity of opinion and revealed howntroubled and unsettled, for France too,nis the sociocultural problem of then”melting pot.” Sheikh Haddam, thenrector of Paris’ largest mosque andngenerally regarded as the foremost Islamicnauthority in France, predictablyndeclared himself “outraged” by then”discriminatory attitude” of the schoolnprincipal at Creil, denying that thendefiant wearing of the hidjeb — thencorrect appellation for what in ShiitenIran is known as the tchador — couldnbe interpreted as a subtle form ofn”religious proselytism.” Daniel YoussoufnLeclercq, former chairman of thenNational Federation of Moslems innFrance, insisted no less roundly thatnthe veil was an “imperafive of modesty,”npointing out that, far from being ofnexclusively Islamic inspiration, it hadnoften been worn in traditional representationsnof the Virgin Mary. AlainnGoldmann, the chief rabbi in Paris,nexpressed his own reprobation in forth­nnnright terms: “Those who refuse Moslemnchildren the right to wear thentchador or Jewish children to wear thenkippa are intolerant,” adding, “Todaynit is no longer the religiously inclinednwho are displaying intolerance, as theynare so often blamed for doing, butnlaymen. The lay school should set thenexample of tolerance.”nLess trenchant was Cardinal Lustiger,nthe Catholic archbishop of Paris,nwho called on Moslems to “explain innprecise fashion” if the wearing of thenhidjeb was a religious prescription andnwhy.” French socialists, who pridenthemselves on their ethnic tolerancenand the “libertarian” attitudes they likento assume on every conceivable subject,nwere curiously divided on thenissue. Well-known for her militant espousalnof Third World causes, DaniellenMitterrand, the French president’snwife, defended the classroom foulard,nand in so doing found herself for oncenat odds with her former associate andnpro-Guevara guerrillero Regis Debray,nwho felt and feels that the secularnand nondenominational character ofnFrench secondary schools must be preservednat all costs in the name ofn”republican principles.” The same linenwas taken by Jean-Pierre Chevenement,nleader of a radically left-wingnfaction of the Socialist Party who isntoday minister of defense. Those,nChevenement warned, who over thenpast fifteen years “have wanted to sellnus ‘the right to be different’ extol thencharms of the ‘American model.’ Butnwhat they are preparing for us is notnthe United States — assuming that thatnwould be desirable — but quite simplynLebanon!”nBeing professionally committed tonraising a huge (preferably rock concert)nrumpus every time the occasion presentsnitself, Harlem Desir, the Creolenfounder of the rabble-rousing pressuregroupnS.O.S.-Racisme, naturallynadded his voice to the pro-veil huenand cry. Yet others asked why concealingnone’s hair and ears beneath a shawlnwas intrinsically more dangerous andnwicked than attending classes in bluenjeans.nOne answer, provided by an Islamicnscholar named Courtellemont, wasn