France styles itself as self-confident, pragmatic and forward-looking, so why is it working itself into a neurotic lather over a head scarf? The garment in question is the hijab. Worn by some Muslim women as a sign of modesty, in France the scarf has become, or so it would seem, nothing less than a battleground for the very future of the secular state.
Politicians across the French political spectrum, backed by feminists, are mounting a campaign to toughen laws to forbid the wearing of the head scarf and other symbols deemed to be overtly religious in state schools.
The hijab debate has switched on and off for a decade or so, but gained a fiery spurt after Sept. 11, when France responded to fears of a rise in fundamentalism among its near five million Muslims.
The issue is especially sensitive here because French governments have vigorously enforced the separation of church and state for more than a century.
The latest row was triggered by two Muslim teenage girls who were suspended from school for insisting on covering their heads while attending class. The school said it was merely enforcing rules barring the display of any religious symbols in state schools, although the laws are open to differing interpretations. The controversy has raised the heat under a commission that is mulling whether to recommend a tightening of these rules. The panel is due to report back to President Jacques Chirac by the end of the year, and smart money says the secular lobby will have its way. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin recently warned that schools "should not be the place where people display their religious affiliations."
For some advocates of tougher laws, the hijab is perceived almost as a provocation. "If you wear a small cross of the hand of Fatima around your neck, no one will bother you," says Jacques Myard, a conservative member of the National Assembly. "It has to be made clear to Muslim fundamentalists that they should stop trying to test the republic."
But is it in France's interest to pursue this path? For one thing, a new law could be overturned by the country's top legal authority, the State Council, or by the European Court of Human Rights because it conflicts with freedom of religious belief.
And if it stands, the big losers would be Muslim moderates, on whom peaceful coexistence between Islam and France's dominant Christian culture depend. These moderates say the head scarf is no big deal and that wearing it is the individual woman's right. The state, they warn, will only stoke hostility by training its guns on what is a visible but harmless token of religious affiliation, like the Jewish kipa.
But their appeals are being ignored, with every risk that a tough, unfair and unenforceable law would create martyrs, boosting support for the Islamist fringe.
Ives Sintomer, a professor of political science at Paris-VIII University, says it is time for France to realize it has matured enough to say goodbye to this fixation on secularism and for French people to accept Muslims as fellow citizens with equal rights.
"France will have to realize that it won't be possible to go along this way for very much longer, and understand that the concept of the secular state is outdated. The French people have not yet realized that these people are living in this country, are French citizens and have rights that they will defend."
The controversy at least gives the lie to those who say that Europe has been doing nothing while its secular foundations are eaten away.
Even if that was true, the hijab is the wrong battlefield. Promoting religious coexistence and ensuring the defacto separation of church and state if a long-term fight. And it is one that requires an unswerving commitment to erase the hostile memories between Christianity and Islam that are easily revived by events in the Middle East.
Religious tolerance comes from integration, and integration itself comes from mutual respect, fairness, open-mindedness and female empowerment. These are not qualities that develop overnight or can be simply decreed by laws - although a legal shield is, of course, vital for defending them. If Muslim women wish to wear of abandon the hijab, it is for them to decide. The storm is a classic case of interfering with something best left alone. The writer is a journalist based in Paris.