One French Nation (Not) Under God

05/15/2015 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

There is a place in the world where the appropriate length of skirts is being fiercely debated. Saudi Arabia? Maybe Afghanistan? No, France.

It started a few weeks ago when Sarah, a 15-year-old junior high student, was allegedly expelled from school for wearing a skirt which was deemed... too long. In 2004, a bill was passed in France banning in-state school signs or items of clothing which "ostentatiously" express a religious affiliation. It was dubbed the "headscarf law." Should it now also be known as the "long black skirt law"?

Sarah is from a Muslim background. She wears a headscarf, but takes it off every morning when she reaches the school gates to comply with the 2004 law. Little did she know that the long black skirts she likes to wear would also prove to be a problem. The French Education Secretary has since explained that the issue in Sarah's case was more to do with her "proselyte" behavior. Whatever that is supposed to mean. The debate has since arisen on whether long black skirts could be considered as an "ostentatious" expression of religious affiliation. On Twitter, many have been defending Sarah using the hashtag #jeportemajupecommejeveux, meaning "I wear my dress as I please."

This is the latest episode in a saga which the French have a particular appetite for: The pious defense of "laïcité". Laïcité is on paper an excellent principle which protects both state and religion from encroaching on each other's territory. But it has all too often been misused.

The country of the Lumières philosophers has long had a complicated relationship with religion. Since the 1905 law which instituted the separation of Church and State, France has often struggled to strike the right balance between guaranteeing religious freedom and protecting state neutrality.

And since the Paris attacks last January, the issue of laïcité has become one of the main focuses of public debate. One senior conservative politician was even quoted lately saying the "identity issue" would be at the heart of the 2017 Presidential race. For a country with an unemployment rate over 10 percent, one could reasonably imagine there are other priorities.

Pressed by the rise of the far-right National Front, French politicians across the political spectrum are stepping up to defend a tougher stance on laïcité.

This certainly is the case for Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French President. Ever since reclaiming the conservative UMP party leadership last November, Islam and laïcité have been high on his agenda. He has strongly advocated for a ban on the Muslim veil in universities. He has also repeatedly asked that school cafeterias stop serving alternatives to pork, as many do to suit families religious beliefs.

Laïcité has become a politically-correct excuse to defend the French identity. The wider issue which needs to be addressed is the coexistence of multiple identities in the French society.

Watching Hillary Clinton's announcement video so openly depict various communities which form the American Nation, or reading Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio's tweets in Spanish, many have commented how this could never happen in France.

There has been a long-held belief that uniformity is the key to maintaining unity. Not a single day goes by without politicians or commentators worrying about the rise of "communitarianism." Communities at large are viewed as a threat to national unity and integration. And more and more moderate right-wing politicians -- including Sarkozy himself -- are calling for an integration system based on "assimilation"; a rhetoric only used until very recently by the far-right. Put simply, the idea behind "assimilation" is that to be a fully-fledged French citizen you need to leave behind any aspects of cultural diversity.

This is causing much resentment as many legitimately feel they can adhere to common French values without rejecting those of the community to which they belong. The "skirtgate" is a perfect illustration of this growing tension. Do those who are debating in Paris about the length of Sarah's skirt realize the kind of message they are sending to the Muslim community? Do they realize that forcing people to choose between two sets of values could lead to pushing them away from the national community? It is like when a friend asks us to choose between them and another friend. The sensible thing to do is to side with the friend who is not asking you to do so.

France -- or at least its elite -- needs to finally let go of its 20th century integration model. It needs to finally realise that cultural diversity, faith, their expression in public are not necessarily a threat to national unity. And maybe one day, the French Nation will tweet in unison #jeportemajupecommejeveux .