French state schools, unlike the British or American varieties, were founded explicitly to oppose clerical power. They are the most visible and enduring bastions of secularism in France. Originally, the prohibition of religious symbols in schools was aimed against Catholics. Many of the supporters of secularism in the 19th century in France were non-conformist or atheist: often Protestant or Jewish. The antisemistism of such groups as Action Française from the 1890s onwards is in turn a reaction against the French radical assault on Catholic society. In the early 20th century a deal was worked out that allowed religious schools to operate alongside the secular system.
The Islamist campaign against secularism is what the headscarf law is about. In some schools, violence has been threatened against girls who refused to wear scarves. Apologists for fundamentalists (ususally socialists hoping to play the race card) condoned the violence and have allowed a climate of terror in French schools.
As a libertarian, I oppose state schools. But also as a libertarian, I also support the prohibition of Islamic fundamentalist intimidation. If Islamic schools really allowed freedom to exit, I could back Moslem campaigns for lifting any restrictions the French government might have against their own schools.
When I visit a mosque, I take off my shoes, I do not interfere with the religious devotions of the worshippers, and I do not demonstrate my own devotions to eating pork and drinking beer. The person who chooses a turban ahead of an education has got “I’m a loser!” stamped all over him. But the people who organise the headscarf campaigns do not want freedom of choice: they want a licence to coerce.
This is not a campaign for religious freedom: Moslems are free to set up their own schools. It is a campaign to separate the public and the private sphere: in the school each pupil’s religious affiliation is a private and not a public matter.
Far be it from me to condone the criminal régime of Chirac. But, this is the same fight as the Turkish Army’s fight to defend a secular state against the fundmentalist tyranny. It is a small corner of the War on Terror, and compared with the some of the antics of the Department of “Homeland Defense” a.k.a. Minipax, one worth fighting.
It is also a campaign against obscurantism. French people often mock those parts of the USA where it is illegal to teach Darwin, or where Creationist theories have to be accorded equal credibilty in the classroom.