What Obama said:
First, in the section where he was explaining that the rights of Muslims are protected in US, he said,
"That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. (Applause.)"
Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit -- for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism....
The sixth issue -- the sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.(Applause.) I know –- I know -- and you can tell from this audience, that there is a healthy debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. (Applause.)
Did the French feel like, just maybe, they were the "some in the West" being referred to here? Um, yes. (And they were. After years of tumult and wrenching debate over this issue, which for many French people came to symbolize the way that religious diversity was throwing the French secular republican model into crisis, in 2004 the French banned headscarfs -- and all noticeable symbols of religious identity -- from the public schools.) The Agence France Presse coverage related to Obama's speech came out under the title "Hijab: Obama égratigne la France," which basically translates as "Hijab: Obama Takes a Dig at France." Lots of prominent French sociologists, politicians, etc. who had been involved in France's debates over the veil in the 90s and early 2000s have criticized Obama's speech: for example, here's Patrick Weil, a very respected scholar who served on the special government-appointed commission responsible for crafting the law banning religious symbols in the schools (my translation):
This passage on the banning of the veil is annoying, because it shows a misunderstanding of the French situation. Muslim women can wear the veil here, even if the school has been made a sanctuary [from religion] and if the space of the State is neutral with regards to religion."
Fair enough: outside the public schools, Muslim women are free to wear headscarves in France, with some exceptions like certain government employees on the job. Personally I disagree with the French policy, for reasons I won't get into today, but it shouldn't be mischaracterized as a general ban on the hijab. Sarkozy, meanwhile, who is eager to emphasize the positive in the Franco-American relationship right now, has been making pretty much the same point as Weil but doing it without criticizing Obama: "I am totally in agreement with President Obama's speech, including on the question of the veil," he told reporters. "In France, a girl who wants to wear the veil can do so," with the exceptions I've noted.
So, flap over? Apparently. But a sore spot has definitely been touched. (If you doubt that, and you can read French, check out the "comments" section on the Le Figaro site article about this. Figaro is a conservative paper, but it's extremely mainstream and venerable -- think Wall Street Journal, sort of. Among the commenters there this appears to have sparked some serious anger. This stuff is a big deal in Europe, and European political dividing-lines around it don't map easily onto US Democrat/Republican thinking. It might be an area where Obama wants to tread pretty carefully in the future.