The French are desperately—and belatedly—trying to begin assimilating the huge number of legal and illegal immigrants who have settled in that country in the past few decades. (See story in today's NYT.) As in many other countries, the immigrants have held tightly to their previous religious and cultural habits, causing much friction with the native-borns, to say the least. Correctly realizing that such efforts will be most effective and lasting when they concentrate on the young, the French have taken steps to prevent children from immigrant communities from presenting themselves as a separate group of people different from the native French around them.
An excellent idea, in theory.
Unfortunately, the government has chosen to make religion, rather than culture, the central issue. Specifically, the French government has banned all religious symbols from the schools—which may well be a necessary condition for full assimilation (though I am by no means convinced of that) but is most assuredly not a sufficient one. Children are now forbidden to wear traditional Arab clothing, yarmulkes, turbans (which are not a religious symbol), or even large crosses, in French schools. A French priest was barred from working in a school until agreeing to remove his cassock and collar and don a business suit. Other aspects of the process have been equally bizarre.
The change has brought much confusion and resentment, of course, and it is by no means clear how firm the French will be in their resolve to ensure that immigrants to the nation become at least somewhat French and dedicated to the national culture (however unpleasant that thought may be to most Americans. . .).
One suspects that the effort will not end with the controversy over religious symbols; and that, at least, is one hopeful sign.
The Germans, Dutch, English, Spanish, and others will surely be watching the French effort closely. They had better.