In 2004, France's National Assembly banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools by a vote of 494 to 36. The ban, which applies to both teachers and students, remains enormously popular. So popular, in fact, that the current Socialist government is under considerable pressure to extend the interdiction on religious symbols to privately run daycare centres.
It had been widely assumed that the ban applied to them, too, until a French court this year sided with a daycare worker who was fired for showing up to work in a full-body-length chador.
The reaction to the court decision was swift and nearly unanimous. Leading activists and intellectuals – including former head of SOS Racisme and current Socialist Party chairman Harlem Désir – signed a petition calling for a reaffirmation of French secularism. Meanwhile, polls show that more than 80 per cent of French voters support extending the ban on religious symbols, which, since 2010, has included a prohibition on covering one's face in public.
You cannot begin to understand the debate surrounding the Parti Québécois's proposed Charter of Quebec Values without an appreciation of French republicanism and its influence in Quebec. Both France and Quebec are post-Catholic societies that threw off the shackles of the church. The backlash came later in Quebec, but it was even more virulent.
Indeed, since the Quiet Revolution, feminism has been almost as powerful a force as nationalism. During the 1980 sovereignty referendum campaign, Lise Payette, the province's first minister of women's issues, ridiculed female supporters of the No side as "Yvettes," a reference to the obedient young girl in old school manuals. Her outburst provoked a backlash that may have helped the No win, but feminists won the day a year later. Since 1981, Quebec women haven't been able to legally take their husband's name without considerable effort.
Forget turbans or kirpans, the origin of the PQ charter really lies with Quebec feminists – of which Premier Pauline Marois is one – and their attitude toward the hijab. As in France, Quebec feminists and (until recently) most of its intellectual class have seen the Islamic head scarf less as a religious symbol than as a sign of female oppression and submission. In their view, public institutions bound to uphold the principle of gender equality cannot allow it within their walls.
The daughters of the Quiet Revolution cannot conceive of their children and grandchildren being taught by hijab-wearing teachers because they believe the garment sends a message legitimizing the subordination of women. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in former French colonies such as Algeria – and the subsequent de facto imposition of the hijab there – plays a big part in their thinking. Many women who fled repression in North Africa have spoken out in support of the PQ charter.
The struggle of such women was celebrated in the 1998 Céline Dion hit Zora sourit (Zora Smiles), a song about an Algerian woman in France, "her naked face in the wind," who "smiles for those 'back there' who no longer know how to smile."
"Everywhere in the world [where] secularism has moved in reverse," former PQ minister Louise Beaudoin explained last week on Radio-Canada, "the rights of women have generally moved in reverse, too."
Françoise David, a former president of the Quebec Women's Federation and current co-spokesperson for the proudly leaderless and leftist Québec Solidaire, supports the PQ charter in principle. But she opposes prohibiting public-sector employees from wearing the hijab. She represents a diverse Montreal riding where the head scarf is increasingly common. Her position is good politics, but it's also sincerely held.
"As the old feminist that I am, I have long believed a paying job is one of the passports to women's economic autonomy and freedom," Ms. David told Radio-Canada. "We're already at a 20-per-cent unemployment rate [among immigrants]. I have no desire to increase it."
With its charter, the PQ hoped to rally both secularist progressives in Montreal and conservative nationalists elsewhere in the province. But the document unveiled last week panders too obviously to the traditionalists for many progressives to support it. If Hérouxville is for it, they must necessarily be against it. That's why some Montreal commentators who may have previously expressed admiration for the very French concept of secularism are suddenly dissociating themselves from the proposed charter. They don't like where the PQ is going with this.
But the daughters of the Quiet Revolution may yet have the last word.