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One nation and its gods | James Harrington

The Three Musketeer super-nouns of the French Republic, LibertéÉgalité and Fraternité have their own stubborn young D’Artagnan to nurture - Laïcité

AMID April's protests against the government’s attempts to reform employment laws – another work place dispute quietly raged that had, at its core, one very French value.

Air France cabin crew took offence at a company email instructing female staff 'to wear trousers ... with a loose fitting jacket and a scarf covering their hair on leaving the plane' on flights to Tehran, after they resumed on April 17.

The rule is not new. It was in place before flights to Iran were suspended in 2008 due to international sanctions over the country’s nuclear programme. It was always going to be in place when they started again.

Nor was Iranian law the problem. Like everyone else who travels to a foreign country, airline crews must obey the laws of the lands they visit.

The issue was that crew had no choice about flying to Iran. A union official said: “It is not our role to pass judgment on headscarves or veils in Iran. What we are denouncing is that it is being made compulsory. Stewardesses must be given the right to refuse these flights.”

Female cabin crew were eventually told they would not have to work on flights to Iran if they did not want to: though, strangely, this right was not extended for flights to Saudi Arabia, which has similar laws.

The debate on the wearing of headscarves and religious symbols in public pops up regularly in France where the separation of state and religion is, to steal a religious term, sacrosanct.

The Air France row was not the only time the headscarf conundrum reared its head in April. Prime Minister Manuel Valls revisited the issue when he suggested that headscarves should be banned in universities.

Government colleagues bluntly and publicly reminded him that wearing a headscarf is not illegal in France – unlike discriminating against anyone who wears them – and that university students are young adults with freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

Valls was tripped up – like so many before him – by laïcité or secularism, the difficult and spiky young D’Artagnan to those three hoary musketeer super-nouns of the Republic: Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité. Laïcité is a little more than 100 years old, hard to define, more difficult to adequately translate and close to impossible to pin down.

It is not a ban on religion or religious practice. It is State-approved religious neutrality in public life, sort of, with conditions.

In France, belief is personal and private: not something you discuss or let affect how you act towards others, who may not share the same faith. This is why legislation passed in 2004 banned anyone from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves, Jewish kippas, Sikh turbans and Christian crosses, in state schools, to protect impressionable young children from religious influences.

In 2013, a school secularism charter was introduced, and then education minister Vincent Peillon said: “Everyone is free to have their own opinion but no one has the right to contest teaching content or miss a class in the name of religious precepts.”

Laïcité is so important that former president Nicolas Sarkozy sparked outrage when he announced he had appointed the country’s first ‘Muslim prefect’. Not because the prefect was Muslim, which was a matter of supreme indifference to most people, but because he felt the need to mention the official’s religion.

But laïcité has a problem. It is not as universally acceptable as France’s other three super-nouns. The state may do its best to see everyone as equal, but religion and real life do not.

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