Head Scarf Isn't Haute Couture?

To visit the 12th-century Gothic cathedral in St. Denis, near Paris, is to see a paradox of France today. Inside are the glories of medieval Christianity and the tombs of monarchs, while on the square outside is a huge market frequented almost entirely by Muslims.

This immigrant minority has long posed a challenge for France, one that came to a boil this week when President Jacques Chirac decided to support a proposed ban on Muslim girls wearing head scarves in public schools.

Perhaps as many as 5 million Muslims, mostly from France's former North African colonies, now live in the country - the largest Muslim population in the European Union. Their difficulty in assimilating into traditional French society has led to deep social tensions. Recently some radical Muslims have even taken to attacking French Jews. The blame for this anger lies partly with Islamists who hate French secularism and modernity. But French bigotry also drives young Muslims into the Islamists' camp.

This prejudice stems not only from lingering Gallic tribalism but the republic's difficult relations with religion. Much of French history after the 1789 Revolution saw a struggle between secular republicans and Roman Catholic conservatives. The result is a state "secularism" hostile not only to the church but to religious minorities. Few among the French attend mass but they faithfully observe Sunday store closings and Catholic holidays.

Their worry is that Muslim religious demands threaten secularism - which is reinforced through public education - and progress in women's equality. Others share a dislike of Islam dating back to Charles Martel's defeat of the Moors at Tours in 732. For both groups, head scarves in schools are an affront.

Mr. Chirac's popular decision comes in response to a recent commission report recommending a ban on Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and "large" Christian crosses from schools. It also proposed school holidays for Muslim Eid el-Kabir (which marks the end of the pilgrimage season) and Jewish Yom Kippur - an idea Chirac rejected.

The president's decision, just three months before regional elections, is an attempt to placate the right and tamp down a big threat to French democracy - the extreme-right National Front. But it will only further alienate Muslims - stuffed in overcrowded suburbs like St. Denis and afflicted by prejudice, crime, and unemployment - while doing nothing to resolve the real issues separating that community from the rest of France. It may also drive Muslim girls out of state schools into Islamic classrooms, further hindering integration.

Other Western democracies allow the display of religious headgear and jewelry, yet survive. Bigotry and lack of opportunity, not head scarves, are the threat to France.

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