Veils and Vivre Ensemble
Religious symbols in France are routinely viewed as threats to the laïcité and vivre ensemble that characterize the ideal French Republic. However, unlike displays of religious identification such as necklaces bearing small crosses or stars of David, the presence of Muslim headcoverings in the public sphere has prompted significantly harsher criticism and increasingly restrictive measures within France. Some of the voile’s critics argue that such headcoverings are not only more visible, but are also indicative of a more brazen defiance of traditional republican ideals. While the perceived threat of religious symbols is far from a recent development in France, the particularly fierce reaction to the voile is indicative of a greater trend: the increasingly assertive interpretation and application of laïcité with respect to headscarves. The object of this study is to understand why French laïcité is moving in this increasingly authoritarian direction as well as to understand why a full ban of the “burqa” is being considered in France at this particular moment in time. The earlier affaires du foulard (headscarf affairs) offer good background context for the traditional applications of this principle towards the Muslim veil, and comparing the current dispute with the 2003-2004 affair offers a number of points of assessment that are useful for understanding the ways in which the interpretation and application of laïcité have shifted. The 2006-2007 veil affair in the United Kingdom also provides excellent analytical contrast that will help to situate the French affairs in a larger European context, serving as an analytical foil in many ways to the French understanding of secularism.