No Head Scarves in French Schools? "But Of Course!"
Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, writing in the Toronto Star (Dec. 26, 2003):
A recent editorial in one of Canada's leading papers condemned the French decision to ban religious symbols from public schools as an attempt at "social engineering." It's a strange argument, given that most of France's history is one vast experiment in social engineering - and looking at modern France today, one could hardly say it's been a failure.
As fellows of the Institute of Current World Affairs, of Hanover, N.H., we spent two years studying the French and trying to explain what makes the French tick.
One of our main conclusions was that the French system functions according to values and assumptions alien to Canadians, who pride themselves on their multicultural, British-style democracy. Democracy à la française involves a huge central state whose purpose it is to determine the common good, and this calls for a lot of social engineering.
French social engineering began five centuries ago.
To understand what France was back then, it is more useful to compare it to today's Balkans - it was a patchwork of lesser and bigger duchies, each with their own language, culture and religion. In order to create a single French identity, French kings set out to erase these differences.
This process was brutal and slow, but successful. At the time of the French revolution, half of the French still didn't speak French.
By 1900, most understood it and left their local language - Occitan, Breton, Alsacian, Corsican, or Basque - at home.
During this period, the French closed parishes, and forbade many religious orders. To this day, the French never appoint high civil servants to work in their home region, for the purpose of breaking down social ties and avoiding local power cliques. Now that's social engineering.
Part of the reason France waged total war on its own cultural differences was to overcome an essential trait of the French political
culture: extremism. Just to give a sense of this: From 1789 to 1958, the French went through four democratic regimes, three monarchies, two empires and one fascist dictatorship, each ending in a coup, a war or a revolution.
The reason France didn't dissolve into a banana republic throughout this was that their very strong central state acted as an arbitrator of the common good in spite (some say, because) of the political instability. Whether they were Protestants, Breton or Corsicans, French citizens had to fall into line, and they did.
For most of the 19th century and the better part of the 20th, France was the theatre of a struggle between Republicans and other groups who claimed they knew better what the common good was.
First it was the Royalists, who morphed into ultra-Catholics. The Republicans won, most of the time, but lost one big time in 1940 when the Catholics, using the political crisis resulting from the defeat to the Germans, seized power, scuttled the Republic, imposed a dictatorship and applied their anti-Semitic program. It was horrible, but the French came out of it even more militantly secular.
As a result of five centuries of social engineering, "assimilation" became a positive political concept in French politics.
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