A ban on beards

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2004

“This is getting ridiculous”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3416091.stm :

bq. A proposed ban on religious symbols in French state schools could include a ban on beards, according to the French education minister. Luc Ferry said the law, which will be debated in parliament next month, could ban headscarves, bandannas and beards if they are considered a sign of faith.

UPDATE: “According to Le Monde”:http://www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0@2-3224,36-349896,0.html , Ferry invoked Saussure’s principle of the “arbitrary nature of the sign” in defence of the policy. We’re not going to hear any think like _that_ from a minister in London or Washington any time soon!



Paul 01.21.04 at 3:51 pm

… and in other news, President Jacques Chirac is considering changing his name to “Peter the Great.”


Robert Lyman 01.21.04 at 3:53 pm

So men who have beards because they think it makes them look sexy could keep them, but men who have beards because of a deep-seated belief that God wants them to have beards would have to shave.

That sounds easy to enforce.


harry 01.21.04 at 4:17 pm

I would have thought the principle about the ‘arbitrary nature of the sign’ counted against the policy. Either the signs are meaningness, or, because they are arbitrary, you are endlessly chasing a moving target.

Can girls wear beards as long as they veil them?


Micha Ghertner 01.21.04 at 4:29 pm

I’m declaring “pants” a religious symbol. Take ’em off, Frenchies!


Robert Lyman 01.21.04 at 4:44 pm


You think you’re being funny, but there are religions that require, for instance, women to wear skirts.

Which presumably will soon be illegal in French schools.


drapetomaniac 01.21.04 at 4:46 pm

Getting ridiculous?


ahem 01.21.04 at 7:37 pm

According to Le Monde , Ferry invoked Saussure’s principle of the “arbitrary nature of the sign” in defence of the policy.

Heh. It’s important to define ‘arbitrary’ here: Saussure talks about how a system of signs is a system of differences, with ‘no positive terms’; that the signifier works to exclude other signifiers, rather than to identify the signified. And so Ferry is a rather bad Saussurian.

Now, the interesting consequence is that you can take Lacan’s reading of Saussure(along the lines of harry’s point) and say that with the constant slippage of the signified under the signifier, believing that something is a sign of faith transforms it into a sign of faith, because it signifies one’s subjective belief that it signifies an expression of belief. (Or read Barthes on the slippery semiology of dress.)

And even without going all French po-mo, appreciate that the French policy — in essence, a Gaullist attempt to turn ‘secularism’ into a state religion, with its own uniform of ‘no positive terms’ — is utter codswallop.


Conrad Barwa 01.21.04 at 8:34 pm

UPDATE: According to Le Monde , Ferry invoked Saussure’s principle of the “arbitrary nature of the sign” in defence of the policy.

WTF?! Don’t they teach structuralism properly in French universities anymore? The wearing of the hijab in and of itself means nothing, nothing at all; once it is abstracted the web of social relations that prevail in the context looked at; since it is so arbitrary banning it won’t accomplish anything in itself; what is needed to be looked at is the context and what exactly lies behind the sign. French secularists should be more careful given the history as, if I am not mistaken, one part of Fanon’s account of how this was manipulated and reversed during the Algerian national revolt indicates; at several points of time in order to demonstrate their opposition to the supposedly ‘modernising’ influence of the colonial state, Algerian women sympathetic to the nationalists took to wearing the scarf and veil as a sign of protest and their political allegiances; not because they were forced into it by a patriarchical oppressive system. In Germany, sociologists have encountered resistance from Turkish subjects who wear the hijab and see it as a way of asserting their cultural and ethnic identity in an environement that is frequently containes alienating racism and hostility towards any form of multiculturalism. There was an excellent paper on this by Leonara Auslander’s entitled “Bavarian Crucifixes and French Headscarves” (unforutnately not available on the web any longer) which had very penetrating analysis of the motivations behind these expressions of identity; for example in France, many researchers found that the decision “to wear the headscarf did not seem necessarily to involve an increase in religious piety, to say nothing of a conversion to Islamic fundamentalism. Many of those who now say they are part of the Islamic community are not religious”. Most of these cases involved efforts to assert identity in the face of racism or moves to create social solidarity in a diasporic situation.

A possible alternative approach, is contained in this thought-provoking paper by Sunier on the Dutch ‘pillarisation’ model:


I particularly was struck by this bit:

During a debate between members of the Dutch Christian Democrat Party and spokespersons of some Islamic organizations about integration and the position of Islam, the members of CDA were very critical about certain Islamic values that “do not fit into our society”. The spokesman of the Arab European Leauge (AEL), presently one of the most active Muslim organizations in Belgium and the Netherlands, referred to ‘sovereignty in one’s own set’ (sovereiniteit in eigen kring), in order to demand the right to live according to Islamic prescriptions. He knew exactly that this principle, developed by Dutch Protestant actors during the schoolstruggle at the end of the 19th century, would appeal to CDA members. They remained, of course, critical towards Islam, but the AEL representative at least did not have to ‘explain’ what he meant. Thus repertoires that have been produced in previous periods and previous political arenas, prove to be useful and effective in present ones. As such political culture is in itself a process and it follows that the most successful political actors are those that master the dominant discourse. McAdam et al.(2001) have argued that the vast majority of studies of nationalism are mostly concerned with the first aspect, the (dominant) discourse, rather than with the question how this came about.

Within the locus of what Sunier would call the ‘political culture’ of French civic nationalism; I think the reference to laicite plays a particular role and is used to generate a certain response amongst those who share the hegemonic aspects of this discourse:

Modern French history is thus represented as a series of revolutionary, or at least epochal, reconstructions of the nation under the guidance of enlightened elites. The French enact the revolutionary drama of “la patrie en danger” over and over again. Dates like 1789, 1830, 1848 are the landmarks of French history. The republic is, or so it seems, always threatened by its clerical, obscurantist, and particularist enemies who are defeated from time to time, only to rise from their ashes anew. Again and again the republic has to be saved by the resolute action of its virtuous citizens. Each episode represents a step forward in the march of universal rationality.

This is a tradition which I have a lot of empathy with, as do I would assume most French citizens; and the use of secularism needs to be seen in this light as it strikes me that what is being deployed here is basically a symbolic resource from such a key part of the nationalist tradition in order to legitimise something that otherwise would be regarded more critically. Hence some de-mystification is in order, to reduce the emotional appeals of such rhetoric; it isn’t 1789 or 1848, there is no external threat to the nation and this move is not another progression forward in universal rationality nor is it revolutionary. An examination of the wider context will demonstrate why this is the case; the way indivisibility and laicite are counterpoised in the French constitutional order to me, is a sign of the mutually reinforcing aspects of these two qualities. I do not think the intention was to use secularism to destroy or undermine the former; which seems to be the case here. One of the greatest arguments of in favour of secularism from a pragmatic point of view; is that it should lessen such political conflict and preserve the unity of the polity that could otherwise be fractured into competing and antagonistic religious groups.


andrew 01.21.04 at 10:20 pm

Go all the way…ban circumcision or should that be ban uncircumcision, oh hell, just ban tight pants and swinmming trunks on men..


yabonn 01.22.04 at 10:53 am

What strikes me in that is the reaction of the press outside of france.

Inside france everyone was drilling his forehead after ferry’s brainfart. Very quickly, goverment and official explained that, of course, it was a ridiculous idea, and let’s all move along. Case closed in one afternoon, or so.

The foreign press went “aha”. And “ahaa”. And then some more (wtf with beeb and the guardian?), and all jumpy about what is an utterly insignificant bit of info. No sign of the officials/goverment reaction, too.

“in essence, a Gaullist attempt to turn ?secularism? into a state religion,”

There’s nothing to “turn into”, cause nothing changes. It’s not new, and not really gaullist ihmo, this is just dusting a century aged law : faith are a personnal matter, unwelcome in the common grounds of school, administration etc. It ruffled catholic feathers last time, islamic ones this time, and some others again in the future, i suppose.

ikram (from unforseen consequences thread) :

You were asking me about my use of the word “drone” to describe the pro-veil demonstration. This word comes often to my mind when i see faith extremist crowds : i get the feeling that there’s a cleric hanging around having the fun of his life with the remote control in his hand.


goforit 01.22.04 at 10:58 am

Whatever … I reckon a ban on all beards forever is a lay down winner.


Dave F 01.22.04 at 11:40 am

Perhaps they mean the kind of beards that, to quote a Kingsley Amis character “go all the way round his face without him having a moustache.” That would be understandable, certainly.


some dude 01.22.04 at 6:25 pm

I think there’s money to be made selling t-shirts and buttons that read, “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” etc. Some industrious soul may already be on this. I would, but I’m kinda lazy, spending my time patrolling the blogs and such.


Frank Wilhoit 01.24.04 at 2:23 am

The only content of any religious expression is a demand that all non-members of that religion be immediately killed. The time when such expressions could be tolerated is past, if there ever was such a time.

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