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Social Text 18.4 (2000) 25-53

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Sporting Faith:
Islam, Soccer, and the French Nation-State

Paul A. Silverstein

On 18 September 1989, a week after the annual rentrée scolaire (return from summer vacation), Ernest Chernière, principal of the Gabriel Havez grammar school in the far-northern Parisian suburb of Creil, expelled three girls (ages thirteen to fourteen) of North African Muslim heritage for refusing to take off their headscarves in class. On 4 October, the socialist national newspaper, Libération, picked up the story, and within three days the fate of Fatima, Leïla, and Samira became the focus of national attention. On 10 October, through the mediation of a local Tunisian cultural association, the parties reached a compromise that the girls would be free to wear their scarves in the halls, but not in the classrooms themselves. By 20 October, however, two new cases had arisen in the southern cities of Marseilles and Avignon, and, in addition, the three Creil girls found themselves once again excluded from class for wearing their scarves in violation of the compromise.

Amid a flurry of news reports, interviews, debates, and proclamations from all sides of the political, religious, academic, and association spectrum, the National Assembly convened a nationally televised meeting on 25 October to determine how to address these issues, and subsequently returned to them on 8 November. Over the course of these debates, the socialist minister of education, Lionel Jospin, in the face of severe criticism and taunts of "Retire!" from the conservative Gaullist contingent, affirmed his simultaneous commitment to a secular school system and to absolute equity in education. Following a 1937 law prohibiting proclamations that might jeopardize the religious neutrality of educational institutions, he demanded that children "not come to school with any sign affirming a religious distinction or difference," but stated that this in itself could not constitute grounds for expulsion (Journal Officiel, 25 October 1989, 4114). He then requested a special Council of State (Conseil d'État) high court to examine the question constitutionally. On 27 November 1989, the council concluded that wearing a Muslim headscarf was not in principle incompatible with a secular educational system and that expulsion would only be justified if there existed a "risk of a threat to the establishment's order or to the normal functioning of teaching" or, in other words, if the headscarf, [End Page 25]

by its ostentatious or demanding nature (caractère ostentatoire ou revendicatif), constitutes an act of pressure, of provocation, of proselytism or of propaganda challenging the dignity or liberty of the student or other members of the educational community, compromising their health or security, or perturbing the progress of the teaching and the educative role of the teachers. (Extrait du registre des délibérations de l'Assemblée Générale 346.893, 5)

Jospin reiterated these conclusions in his 12 December circular to school directors and staff of the Ministry of Education, thus officially, if tentatively, condoning the Muslim bodily adornment on the same level as Christian crosses or Jewish kippas. In effectively declaring these signs as "private" and devoid of public meaning, he was able to simultaneously uphold basic republican values (universal education, separation of church and state) while maintaining good relations with Muslim associations and institutions. Further, by equating France as a whole with such moral values, he could argue that his propositions would assure the true project of the national education system: the preparation of children for "their responsibilities as citizens" (Le Monde, 14 December 1989).

The relative openness of the decision, however, inspired continued debate and left school directors great room for interpretation and maneuver, thus setting the stage for a series of mini-affaires to arise in each subsequent year. 1 On 2 November 1992, the Council of State reconvened to overturn a 1990 decision by the school district and the administrative court to exclude three headscarved girls from the Jean Jaurès grammar school in Montfermeil (a southern suburb of Paris) and reaffirm its 1989 position. Again, in March 1994, it played a similar role...


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