Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 13, Nº. 1 (May-October 2022)
Master’s student in International Security and Defense at the Brazilian War College (ESG, Brazil)
specializing in BRICS’ common identity formation. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in International
Relations from the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) focusing on Eurasian
geopolitical dynamics. He writes for an independent think tank Quo Vademus. He is an external
collaborator to the Nucleus of Studies on BRICS (NEBRICS) and a fellow researcher in the Group
of Studies on BRICS (GEBRICS).
This paper analyzes the perception construction of the hijab use in public schools as an
ontological threat to France. Considering laïcité as one of the pillars for French society and
identity and the school as the basis of the construction of this narrative, the use of the hijab
could be considered as a threat to religious neutrality in the public spheres, injuring the basic
principles of the Republic. This situation led to the approval of a law banning the use of all
kind of apparent religious garments in primary school across France, despite religious freedom
being a fundamental right in the country. As a methodology, it conducts a discourse analysis
of the statements and opinions of French leaders and institutions of the executive and judicial
branches in relation to the use of clothing in relation to the principle of laïcité and freedom of
worship in France between 1989 and 2004.
Ontological Security; Laïcité; Islam; Religious Freedom; France.
How to cite this article
Pedrosa, Bruno (2022). Liberté, Egalité et Laïcité: the use of hijab in public schools as a threat
to the french republican ontology (1989-2004). In Janus.net, e-journal of international
relations. Vol13, Nº. 1, May-October 2022. Consulted [online] on the date of the last visit,
Article received on September 23, 2021 and accepted for publication on March 16, 2022
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Liberté, egalité et laïcité: the use of hijab in public schools as a threat to the French republican ontology
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Terrorist attacks have been treated as a security issue in France since the 1980s.
However, since the 9/11 event, such threats have been correlated with Islamic
extremism, both by the media and by the French government (France, 2006). These
concerns about the French State’s security and its citizens regarding the Muslim
community in the country permeated social layers and brought to debates issues on
identity and private life.
It is known these speeches addressed by the state and the media have increased the
stigma towards Muslims in France. Stéphane Bauzon (2017: 190) states that "the
terrorist attacks carried out by Islamists on French territory in recent years have only
reinforced this mistrust towards the Muslim religion". Moreover, one can also say that
there was a development of a type of distrust not only regarding the religion, but towards
representations and symbols of it, being the use of the hijab as the greatest example of
this phenomenon.
However, despite being one of the countries from which ideals such as tolerance and
religious freedom spread to the rest of the world, the country's government approved in
2004 a law prohibiting the use of the hijab by Muslim girls in primary public schools. This
measure was approved by the justification of "reaffirming the republican symbol of
promoting the equality and emancipation of Muslim women" (Bauzon, 2017:
186) In addition, the French educational system aims to increase the country's internal
cohesion by marginalizing "regional and religious allegiances" (Windle, 2004: 97) . Also,
according to Windle (2004: 97), concerning the French public school system, "a 'free,
secular, and compulsory' national educational system is one of the key guarantors of
Although the term can be translated directly into "secularity" or "secularism", I opted for the original use of
the symbolic and cultural charge that is brought, which does not occur when there is translation. This
justification for the non-option of translation applies to all other terms in foreign language in this work.
According to the French government itself, laïcité is a value that guarantees "freedom of conscience".
Therefore, it allows "the freedom to manifest their beliefs or convictions within the limits of respect for
public order." It is concluded that laïcité implies the neutrality of the State and imposes the equality of
all before the law without distinction of religion or conviction" (France, [s.d.]).
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republican values [...]". Thus, wearing the hijab could "symbolize [...] a threat to the
very conditions of the existence of the Republic" (Windle, 2004: 97).
Despite Windle's (2004) statements, it can be seen that explanations about the use of
the state apparatus to deal with the Islamic issue at schools have been insufficient. This
is shown by the concentration of studies in state security having the State as the main
study object (Gregory, 2003) and negligence of the ontological issue of security seen
through French society’s lens. Other thinkers try to understand the effect of these
religious symbols using other interpretations. Whether by the media, by gender studies
or by social issues such as integration and immigration (Carle, 2004). However, these
works fail to fully explain the origins of the motivations of French policies to avoid the
use of the hijab in the country's public schools, although they are sometimes interpreted
as inconsistent with the French values of freedom and equality themselves.
According to Resende (2017: 90),when she talks about the effects of the 9/11 attacks
on American society, she say this event produced a trauma in the collective imaginary of
that nation provoking "questions of the dominant discourses about America and about
Americans". Then, in the face of this identity crisis, the thinker states that, in order to
overcome trauma and restore social order, "the articulation of a new dominant discourse
capable of recommence is the framework of intelligibility of reality broken in 2001"
(Resende, 2017: 90). Likewise, the use of the hijab by girls in French public schools has
generated a crisis in the dominant narratives about the identity of the country, role of
school and the founding principles of the present-day French Republic, such as freedom
and secularism.
Given the explanatory insufficiency offered by the dominant literature, this work aims to
offer a perspective of the problem through the ontological security lens. Based on the
security perspectives’ expansion, and the studies on identities as objects to be securitized
by the State (Mitzen, 2006; Steele, 2008; Subotić, 2016; Resende, 2017), this text
focuses on answering the following question: how can the use of hijab in primary schools
be considered as an existential threat to France? Through this approach, this article’s
main argument finds itself at the following statement: Muslim religious manifestations
can be constructed as supposed threats to French national security, even if this process
is against French Republic’s founding values.
With the objective of analyzing the impact of this garment on the French identity
imaginary, one can see that discourse analysis makes it possible to understand the
discursive practices and narratives that shape perceptions of reality (Hansen, 2013).
Another possibility offered by this method is that it "not only to explicate the content of
a state’s biographical narratives, but also to reveal how a discourse’s effects constitute
certain types of action" (Steele, 2008: 1011). In addition, the analysis of speech acts
by authorities are both a source and a methodological practice for this work .
The choice of temporal scope is justified by the following situations: in 1989, an episode
occurred that became known, in French known as affaire des foulards islamiques
rekindled the public debate about the limits of secularism within French society, notedly
Translated as the "case of Islamic veils", this event occurred when three girls of school age and of Maghreb
origin were expelled from the school where they studied for insisting on the wearing of the hijab in the
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within schools. In 2004, one can consider as the apex of this discussion when there was
a prohibition, by law, of the use, not only of the hijab, but as of other apparent religious
garments in public schools. Thus, this work will be divided into four parts. The first takes
place in the understanding of ontological security as a theoretical approach to understand
the securitization of identity as a political practice. The second part is dedicated to
understanding the space of laïcité in the French imaginary as part of its identity. The
third part will have the objective of analyzing the phenomenon’s unfolding through the
approval of the ban on the use of hijab in French schools in 2004. The last part is intended
for the final conclusions on the issue.
Ontological security: what is it and why is it important?
Benedict Anderson (2006: 6) states that "communities are distinguished not by their
falsehood/authenticity, but by the style they are imagined." These imaginations are
based on symbols and narratives that offer "a sense of space and a sense of place"
(Subotić, 2016: 612) for individuals belonging to these same communities. It can be
said, then, that narratives "play a critical role in the construction of political behavior
[...]. We create and use narratives to interpret and understand the political realities in
our surroundings" (Patterson and Monroe, 1998: 321).
Thus, Subotic (2016: 612) says that these narratives serve as autobiographies. Used by
both individuals and larger groups, these autobiographies function as an ontological
reference of those who reproduce it. By creating a story about "where did ‘we’ come
from, how we did come to be who we are, what bring us together in a group, what
purpose and aspirations does our group have," communities can create an ontological
anchor that gives them "a sense of stability and allows us to move forward." According
to Steele (2007: 904),"state agents give meaning to their actions to others through this
narrative [...]". Thus, Subotic (2016: 612) concludes by stating that one cannot
understand the behaviors of political actors without "understand what is the normative
narrative underpinning of the policy choices actors make [...]". Therefore, they are
narratives that enable the ordering of a sense of "who I am", which enables the
construction of rational calculations as a "precondition for knowing what to do" (Somers,
1994: 618).
However, when this narrative and the identity that comes from it suffers a crisis, the
state tends to take certain measures to resume the previous balance. According to Steele
(2008b: 2) in this scenario, "states seek social actions to serve their self-identity needs,
even when these actions compromise their physical existences". Thus, the author even
states that ontological safety is more important than physical security. This is due to
state's willingness to keep "self-concepts consistent, and the Self of states is constituted
and maintained through narrative [...]" (Steele, 2008: 3).
However, what is ontological security? According to Mitzen (2006: 342), she refers it as
"the need to experience oneself as a whole, continuous person in time as being rather
than constantly changing in order to realize a sense of agency”. Thus, feeling
ontologically secure means being safe about one's own identities.
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Also, according to Mitzen (2006: 345), ontological security becomes important because,
through this perspective, identity is the basis of the actors' agency. According to her,
when the individual is in an ontological insecurity situation, it "cannot relate ends
systematically relate to means in the present, much less plan ahead". For these moments
of "profound ontological crises" (Subotić, 2016: 614), is called trauma. Trauma, in turn,
occurs when "external events cannot be neatly placed into the ontological security
narrative because they represent a challenge to the state internal or external identity"
(Subotić, 2016: 614).
In the face of these ontological crises, the narratives present in the imaginaries of the
communities are activated in order to give a strategic basis for political actions (Subotić,
2016). According to Subotić, the use of these discourses by political leaders serves to
create cognitive bridges between political action and the restoration of autobiography so
that its continuity is maintained. "Narratives provide intersubjective meaning to policy
change. They make political change comprehensible and acceptable" (Subotić, 2016:
Laïcité as France’s Ontological Pillar
As part of the narrative of what it is to be French, laïcité is one of the most important
aspects of the Republic’s ontology. It is part of the national myths and symbols that "are
receptacles that allow people to project onto them their idealized images of their values,
cultures, histories, peoples and lands. In France, a particular understanding of laïcité is
linked to a sense of identity" (Gunn, 2004: 429). However, to better understand the
importance given to this concept in the French imaginary, it is worth making a brief
historical recap of its construction.
According to Gunn (2004), there were two historical periods in France that were essential
for the development of this concept as part of the country's autobiographical narrative:
the Revolution of 1789 and the Period of the Third Republic (TR) which lasted from 1870
to 1940. The most important point the author wants to discuss is that the construction
of laïcité "did not embody the high principles of tolerance, neutrality, and equality; rather
it emerged from periods of conflict and hostility, most of which targeted the Roman
Catholic Church" (Gunn, 2004: 433).
In the French Revolution period, a main point of the revolutionaries’ criticism was the
influence that the Catholic Church had on the state’s public affairs. The objectives of the
most radical (the Jacobins) were a total separation between the State and the Church
and the dechristianization of French society. "[...] the French revolutionary spirit of
citizenship is understood as freedom of religion" (Carle, 2004: 66). Despite later, it was
turning against Protestants and Jews, the Catholic Church was the main target hit by the
revolution having its assets confiscated by the state and its leaders were impeached and
hunted. Gunn (2004: 438) says there was a "demand that citizens choose between their
religions and the state". Then, according to Carle (2004: 66), "one of the most valued
legacies of the Revolution is the secular state and institutional structure of the public,
secular education implemented by Jules Ferry under the Third Republic [...]".
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During the Third Republic, after having gone through several political changes, the
Revolution’s extremism had already disappeared. Nonetheless, according to Gunn
(2004), it was during this period that the term laïcité has begun to be more common in
political discourses. One of the great milestones of TR in this sense was the total legal
division between the Church and the state in 1905, which had as its principle, present
since the times of the Revolution, that there be "the separation of civil society and
religious society, the State not exercising any religious power, and the Churches no
political power" (Capitant, 1930: 305). Then, "in France, laïcité identifies with the
Republic" (Bauzon, 2017: 177).
At the same period of TR, the French government took its first steps to establish a public
primary education system and "training teachers as defenders of science to
counterbalance the village priest" (Windle, 2004: 98). "The new structure of secular
power replaced the religious community with a political community, excluded religion
from public political life, and gave rise to a still present anti-religious and anticlerical
discourse which makes laïcité a particular experience". This thought was in the perception
of the French State that it must "guarantee freedom of conscience for all and the equality
of all convictions" (Nugier et al., 2016: 16) by relegating religion to the private
Thus, the State was responsible for the religious neutrality of citizens within all public
spheres (Nugier et al., 2016: 16). In addition, French secularism is seen as a guarantor
of neutrality on the part of the State with all religions and a cohesion that allows national
unity (Berg and Lundahl, 2016). As a result, the wearing of religious clothing in French
schools is regarded as a proselytizing religious act and as "an unacceptable expression
of a religious background that infringes upon the neutrality and the laicist character of
the public school" (Shadid and van Koningsveld, 2005: 48). All this is demonstrated in
a speech by former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius in 2003, in which he says: "The
school is not just one within many places; is where we shape our little citizens. And this
tripod: laïcité, Republic, school, is the tripod on which we support ourselves" (Fabius,
It can also be affirmed that the French State model of seeing society and its relationships
with it reinforce the neutrality of religious representation. Based on the Jacobean
centralizing and unitary model, the system today insists on an individualistic relationship
between the State and people (Doyle, 2011: 487). According to Doyle (2011: 478) this
is explained by a legacy of the revolutionary period in which, in order to "combat the
hierarchy of hereditary states", the ideal of the reconstruction of French nationality would
be based on the emancipation of individuals from "affiliation groups". In other words,
"French republicanism encouraged a strong serum of democratic public power but
relegated cultural affiliations and identities, including religion, to the private sphere"
(Doyle, 2011: 478).
The Case of Hijabs in Primary Schools
In 1989, three Muslim girls were temporarily suspended from their schools for their
insistence on wearing the hijab in the classroom. This has generated heated debates
within French society about whether or not the right to wear the veil, "revived existing
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controversies, exploited French fears of Islamic fundamentalism and again dramatized
continuing concerns about the future of Muslim immigrant communities in France"
(Feldblum 1993: 61). The controversy reached the highest court of justice of France (the
Conseil d'État) from which came the opinion that the use of the hijab or expression of
the religion of those girls do not affect the principles of laïcité (Gunn, 2004). However,
the same court said that students can be passive to punishment if they try to make any
kind of religious propaganda or disrupt school activities
Because it was not clearly solved, the issue of the use of the hijab by Muslim students in
primary schools was still a fuel of debate in the country. In addition, the increase in
immigration from former muslim majority French colonies to the country, from the 1980s,
began to produce a certain social tension in relation to the wearing of clothing that
distinguish women from this religion. The use of the hijab and other types of adornments
worn by Muslims in France in public places causes the status of laïcité and its limits to be
questioned. This even causes a suspicion among the French whether Muslims prefer their
Islamic identity than French identity (Gunn, 2004). As many of these women are
immigrants or their daughters, they are seen as foreigners, a non-national symbol that
has not been fully integrated into the standard and genuinely French values, according
to the prevailing identity narratives. "When the French see the veil, they are not proud
that their country is tolerant and welcoming of other peoples and religions, but feel that
something foreign and non-French has infiltrated their society (Gunn, 2004: 418-419).
Since this episode in 1989, several similar cases have been disputed in France, between
those who wanted a purer laïcité and those who did not see conflicts between the use of
religious devices and the legal concept. Also, according to Gunn (2004), however, in most
cases, the Conseil d'État was in favor of wearing the veil, but always warning the issue
of proselytizing and disturbance of order. However, in 2004, legislation was passed
almost unanimously that effectively banned the use of hijba in public schools (Windle,
This movement to strengthen laïcité (some authors even call it nouvelle laïcité)
in 2003, when former Prime Minister Raffarin said during a television interview that the
veil should be punished absolutely in public schools (Ockrent and Leclerc, 2003). Soon
after this episode, the Minister of the Interior (who would end up being the president of
the country) Nicholas Sarkozy said before the Union of Islamic Organizations of France
that no woman should wear the veil when taking photos for official documents in the
Republic (Gunn, 2004). However, although the laïcité issue was built in relation to the
Catholic Church and expanded to other religions, "the threat posed by Catholicism has
never been portrayed exactly as the current threat of Islam is by the mainstream media.
The old mistrust of religious power is now combined with the fear of the formation of
separatist communities" (Windle, 2004: 98).
Prime Minister Raffarin's concern about the alleged threat that the wearing of the hijab
posed to the Republic was based on an issue called communautarisme. Based on "a life
founded on belonging to the Muslim religion", the communautarisme "is perceived as
the refusal to shape the traditional French lifestyle and even as the will to reproduce in
the national territory true enclaves of its original countries" (Bauzon, 2017: 189). This
To delve into the issue see Nugier et al (2016).
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is reinforced by the minister's own words by saying that there should be a "debate that
engages in school and its future" since "we are all convinced, that the school is the
primary space of the Republic" (Raffarin, 2003). In addition the minister (2003) goes on
to say that it must be ensured that it is in the school that the "supreme value that is the
Republic and that there are no ostentatious symbols of communautarisme that come to
unbalance our school balance". Raffarin concludes by saying that the school should
remain as "the space par excellence of the Republic, soon of the laïcité". Therefore, it is
clear the perception of the French authorities that French identity was at risk of existence
for alleged infringements of laïcité by religious groups.
In view of the increased intensity of the debate across the country, President Jacques
Chirac proposed the creation of a committee to assess the situation that should give him
an opinion by the end of 2003. This committee aimed to generate "reflection on the
application of the principle of laïcité in the Republic" (Stasi, 2003: 2). Named Stasi
report (last name of the committee leader), the document proposed several proposals
for social inclusion and improving the lives of marginalized communities, such as Muslims.
However, the point that received the most attention from the public stated the following:
“Adopt the following provision for schools: in respect of freedom of conscience
and the proper character of establishments under contract, clothes and
manifesting signs of religious or political belonging are prohibited in schools,
colleges and high schools” (Stasi, 2003: 68).
In December of the same year, President Chirac gave his opinion on the report and
addressed the issue of the use of religious ornaments in public schools in the country.
On national television, the president thanked the Stasi commission's efforts and made
remarks that would explain the approval of the ban on the use of religious parts by the
French parliament in 2004. As he begins his speech, Chirac says that
“the debate on the principle of laïcité resounds in the depths of our
consciences. It reminds us of our national cohesion, our ability to live
together, our ability to gather about the essentials. The laïcité is inscribed in
our hearts. It is at the heart of our identity” lysée, 2003: 1).
By reaffirming that France is known "as the homeland of human rights", he continues to
praise the principle. Moreover, it tells how laïcité is responsible for the reality in which
France lives. "It is in fidelity to the principle of laïcité, the cornerstone of the Republic,
the axis of our common values of respect, tolerance, dialogue, that I call all French and
all French to come together". Continuing, "these values underpin the uniqueness of our
nation. [...]. It is these values that make France”. He also makes direct references to the
communautarisme stating that it "cannot be a choice of France. He would be contrary to
our history, to our traditions, to our culture" (Élysée, 2003: 1-3).
Recalling the principle that "school is a republican sanctuary that we must defend"
(Élysée, 2003: 5), Chirac offers his final opinion on the issue. These are his words:
“With that in mind, I estimate that the carrying of clothes or symbols that
ostensibly manifest the religious must be outlawed in schools, colleges and
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public schools. The discreet signs, for example, a cross, a star of David, or a
hand of Fatima, will naturally remain possible. Unlike ostentatious symbols,
that is, those that the size leads to perceive and recognize immediately their
religious belonging, they cannot be admitted. They the Islamic veil, whether
it is its name, the kippa or a cross manifestly oversized will have no room
in public schools. The public school will remain secular” (Élysée, 2003: 5).
In March 2004, President Jacques Chirac signed a law passed by the National Assembly
and the Senate that banned all types of religious clothing in schools, including the hijab.
In the face of all this, it can be seen that the issue of laïcité and, consequently, the French
identity saw in Islam and its clothing its greatest threat within the period analyzed.
Although the Stasi Commission and President Chirac's statements were about religions
in general, throughout the text it was possible to see that both the beginning and
development of the debate on the limits of laïcité and communautarisme and religious
clothing in public spaces, from 1989 onwards, Islam had been the main starting point.
However, although theoretically it is a contradiction within the logic of French values of
tolerance and religious freedom and is a question of the opinions of the Conseil d'État,
the 2004 decision is supported when looked at by the bias of ontological security.
Resuming the thoughts of Steele (2008) and Subot (2016), states create narratives
about themselves so that their actions of both the past and the present and those of the
future are justified in terms of identity. "[…] actors must create meanings for their actions
to be logically consistent with their identities" (Steele, 2008: 11). Thus, it is understood
why the policies and the resurgence of debates about laïcité within French society after
the affair des foulards islamiques. Thus, anxieties about the future of their identity and
the perception of the threats generated by Islam "justify a policy by reasoning what such
a policy means or would mean about their state’s respective sense of self-identity"
(Steele, 2008: 12).
Putting into perspective the speeches of high-level officials of the executive power such
as Jacques Chirac, Laurent Fabius and Jean-Pierre Raffarin it is seen that the religious
expressions of French Muslims were being considered as threats to the continuity of the
French hegemonic autobiography. Thus, fears and anxieties of French society regarding
its identity, and consequently its existence, enabled the government to make these
As demonstrated by the new approaches of Security Studies, societal and identity issues
have been seen as important interpretative keys of reality. In view of all that has been
written, the conclusions of this text show that the manifestations and political
mobilizations in France in relation to the use of the hijab in public schools, between 1989
and 2004, were reactions to the defense of the principle of laïcité, as one of the
ontological bases of the country.
However, it is noteworthy that other issues that are necessary for understanding this
issue are beyond the scope of this work. Reflections on whether these reactions came