The controversial head-scarf and yarmulke ban in French public schools, the January 20 New York Times informs us, has now spread to bandanas and is threatening Sikh turbans. French education minister Luc Ferry, the newspaper wrote, “told the National Assembly’s legal affairs committee that any girl’s bandana that is considered a religious sign… would also be banned.” And the Times continued:

During the two-hour debate on the proposed ban… Ferry explained that the wording afforded the state the ability to broadly interpret what constitutes a religious symbol and prevent the possible subversion of the law… ‘Signs could be invented using simple hairiness or color,’ he said. ‘Creativity is infinite in this regard.’

It looks like the great French head-scarf debate is about to become the great French semiology debate. This is fitting, because semiology was a word coined in French by the great late-19th-century and early-20th-century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In his “Course in General Linguistics, De Saussure wrote:

A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable…. I shall call it ‘semiology’ (from Greek semeion, ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitute signs, what laws govern them… Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology.

Semiology has indeed become the recognized discipline that De Saussure hoped it would be. It also has continued to make a distinction basic to De Saussure’s way of thinking but not, it would seem, to the French Ministry of Education’s — that is, the distinction between a “sign” and a “symbol.” As De Saussure put it while pointing out that the former is arbitrary, i.e., that there is no intrinsic connection between a signifier and what it signifies, just as there is none between the sound of the word “apple” and the fruit that grows on an apple tree:

“The word symbol has [incorrectly] been used to designate… the signifier… [But] One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary… The symbol of justice, a pair of scales, could not be replaced by just any other symbol, such as a chariot.”

Are head scarves, yarmulkes, crosses, bandanas and so on signs or symbols? Or are some of them neither? Let’s give it some thought.

Take a cross. This is clearly, in the Saussurean sense, a symbol, since it has an intrinsic relationship to the Christian story of the Crucifixion, just as a pair of scales does to justice. You can’t take the wearing of a cross to signify anything else but the wearer’s identification with Christianity.

A bandana, by contrast, is a Saussurean sign, since it can be, on the one hand, merely a functional strip of cloth, as when worn by athletes to keep sweat from their eyes, and on the other hand, a nonverbal statement that has no intrinsic relationship to this function or to other possible significations of the bandana — e.g., that its wearer is a chicly tough woman, a leftist demonstrator against the Korean government, a Muslim student protesting the banning of head scarves, etc.

What about Muslim head scarves themselves, though, or yarmulkes? They are certainly not signs, since their relationship to their function as head-coverings is not arbitrary; on the contrary, Muslim law mandates that girls’ heads be covered and Jewish law that boys and men’s heads be covered, and yarmulkes and head scarves are intrinsically connected to these laws. But does this mean they are symbols? Can we say, for instance, that they “symbolize” being a Muslim or Jew as a cross “symbolizes” being a Christian, despite the fact that a religious Christian is not obliged to wear a cross and religious Jews and Muslims are obliged to cover their heads? Wouldn’t this be like saying that keeping the speed limit on a highway “symbolizes” being a careful driver, when in fact it does not “symbolize” it but is a necessary part of it?

And yet there is an objection to this line of argument, too. Although there is only one way of observing the speed limit, which is not to exceed it, there are many ways of covering the head — with a scarf, with a yarmulke, with a hat, with a cap and so on. Insofar as scarves and yarmulkes have been chosen by Muslims and Jews as the conventional way of observing a religious law that could be observed in other ways too, have they not indeed become “symbols” of Muslim or Jewish identity? A Jew wearing a baseball cap, it can be maintained, is keeping Jewish law but not dressing “symbolically” as a Jew. A Jew wearing a yarmulke is doing just that.

Should any of this matter to the French National Assembly? That depends, I suppose, on whether the intended ban is meant just for religious “signs” and “symbols,” or for any expression of religious affiliation at all. And of course, a non-sign or -symbol easily could become the opposite as a result of any law passed, as might happen to baseball caps if they were permitted while yarmulkes were forbidden. There will always be creative ways to fight back, as Mr. Ferry observed. But, although it will take more than semiology to resolve the issue, the French should get their signs and symbols right.

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