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The abaya debacle, Maison Gainsbourg, and building community in Paris
It wouldn’t be September in France without breathing new life into an old debate after a brief summer reprieve. Ready?
If you missed the headlines a few weeks ago, the Macron government targeted the abaya its latest effort to protect the country’s brand of secularism, laïcité (a big topic in The New Parisienne). Gabriel Attal, the 34-year-old education minister appointed in July to replace Pap Ndiaye (someone with actual experience working in education), caused a stir when he announced that the abaya would not be permitted in public middle schools and high schools when students went back into class. The government insists that the role of education is to focus on universalist values and flatten any sort of religious identity. Universalism is a noble pursuit insofar as it suggests that everyone, regardless of origin or religious affiliation, is equal under the Republic. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and time again, this works imperfectly in practice. Discrimination is rampant and any attempt to address it or formally measure it— next to impossible given that ethnic data collection is verboten in France— is swiftly shut down.
As Attal put it, “you should not be able to distinguish or identify the students’ religion by looking at them.” In other words, the abaya is seen as an overt symbol of religiosity and a violation of the 2004 law which prohibits "the wearing of signs or clothing by which pupils ostensibly express a religious affiliation" and therefore it shouldn’t be worn in schools.
The abaya isn’t, however, a religious symbol. It’s a traditional long dress and many a maxi dress, designer or otherwise, could pass for one. This seems like a grey area in secular law that is open to interpretation. Attal’s ban was also upheld by the French Council of State, to which the French PhD candidate researching constitutional law Rim-Sarah Alouane rightfully commented on Twitter (don’t make me call it X!), “it means a non-religious attire or symbol can be labeled religious based on the wearer’s intent.” Or rather, *perceived* intent. A Pandora’s Box indeed.
I applaud the commitment to preserving a secular foundation to society, one that is meant to allow individuals the freedom to believe whatever they want in private. But as I’ve discussed here before, when the policies appear to target Muslims first and foremost, each incident of policing what girls and women wear (since they are the primary targets) signals a very slippery slope. It comes across less as a bid to protect laïcité and more reflective of a fear or rejection of Islam and the assumption that the belief system necessarily leads to fanaticism.
Beyond the above, what bothers me is that there are serious issues plaguing education in France that need urgent attention that strike me as significantly more important than taking a stance on clothing. Among the most pressing: growing social inequality; egregiously low salaries for teachers (20% below the European average) in addition to the teaching training reform, both of which have led to a recruitment crisis; and declining education performance among students.
Anyway, just a thought.
RELATED FAIL: THE EDUCATION MINISTRY COOPTS MLK’s “I HAVE A DREAM” SPEECH
To mark the 60th anniversary of MLK’s influential speech, the French Ministry of Education published a tribute video on social media in which schoolchildren in uniform recited lines in English that revisit the speech. You might say, pourquoi pas? But… all of the children were white. The message also changed and no longer included anything regarding the relationship between white and Black people—core to the original speech. And this was published a day after the announcement about banning the abaya. As you might imagine, the backlash was immediate.
The French Ministry of Education explained in a tweet that the middle school students selected in this video were “the 2023 winners of 'The More I Say' competition, which encourages the creative practice of English in middle school". Okay and yet, the prize-winners hailed from schools all over France and its territories, including Guadeloupe. Those students weren’t selected to participate. Bref…
A bad look. The ministry deleted their posts with the video but fortunately, the website Madmoizelle published receipts.
Anyway, on to other topics….
A NEW TEMPLE TO SERGE GAINSBOURG
A cultural institution and homage to Serge Gainsbourg will open its doors this week, partially in the crooner’s former home on rue de Verneuil. His daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, preserved his space and his belongings just as they were when he died in 1991. “It’s a gateway to understanding his legacy,” she says. (Financial Times)
*Opening Sept 20, tickets online here.
JR POP-UPS AT THE OPERA GARNIER
Through September 25, go check out the French artist JR’s nod to Plato’s allegory of the cave at the Opéra Garnier, currently undergoing renovation. If only his trompe l’oeil, the first of two parts, would remain in place throughout the during of construction instead of the luxury advertisements that will likely replace it!
THE ANTI-FUN BRIGADE: CAN THERE BE TOO MANY CAFES IN PARIS?
I meant to share this story (New York Times) in August. Not to worry, it’s still as annoying as when I first read it! This is a non-story to me. This NYT reader from Spain gets it:
This New York Times story, however, is a much better one! Rebuilding community (bring the cheese) in Paris.
FRANCE’S SUCCESSION FAMILY
The Arnaults as France’s “Succession” family — complete with income disparity and growing discontent from the average citizen. If there’s one thing you must remember about the French it’s that they are typically dubious about, not envious or admirative of, great wealth and success. I’ve often bristled at the idea that one must immediately turn to critique when discussing someone of tremendous means and accomplishment. But in this case, the family’s ever-soaring power and influence over the state is cause for some unease and questioning. (No paywall, New York Times)
NO BIG DEAL, JUST ONE OF MY PHOBIAS ….
😬 (The Guardian)
SEPTEMBER 23: I’m headed to the town of Angers on Saturday to speak at the Angers Literary Festival! I’ll be in conversation with my dear friend, Ajiri Aki in the afternoon. If you live in Angers or can easily get there, RSVP! It’s free! I’m excited to be part of such an illustrious group. Event details here.
OCTOBER 18: I’m so looking forward to this! I’ll be in conversation with the supremely talented wine writer Jon Bonné at the American Library in Paris in October to discuss his extensive two-volume book, The New French Wine. It is nothing short of a game-changing reference that looks at change in the industry and what it takes to truly understand France and its legendary wine trade. Event details here..
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