In a series of mid-twentieth century essays the Hungarian historian, István Bibó, attempted to explain the blindness and irresponsibility that had characterized the interwar politics of the Central European states—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary—and led them to catastrophe. In doing so he proposed a new concept, that of political hysteria. Bibó’s central hypothesis was that when a community fails to find within itself the means or energy to deal with a problem that challenges, if not its existence, then at least its way of being and self-image, it may be tempted to adopt a peculiar defensive ploy. It will substitute a fictional problem, which can be mediated purely through words and symbols, for the real one that it finds insurmountable. In grappling with the former, the community can convince itself that it has successfully confronted the latter. It experiences a sense of relief and thus feels itself able to carry on as before. Anthropologists have explained the magical practices of ‘primitive’ societies along similar lines. Communities which feel themselves defenceless before a nature that they cannot control will people it with invisible powers—gods, djinns, spirits—that are its masters. At a stroke, these communities provide themselves with a means not just to understand the forces of nature but to affect them, by propitiating their gods with sacrifices and incantations.

Bibó borrowed the notion of hysteria from psychiatry, and above all from Freud, although he does not explicitly cite him. For Freud, the chief symptom of hysterical anxiety is phobia. His description of it in the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is well known:

What he [the patient] is afraid of is evidently his own libido. The difference between this situation and that of realistic anxiety lies in two points: that the danger is an internal instead of an external one and that it is not consciously recognized. In phobias it is very easy to observe the way in which this internal danger is transformed into an external one—that is to say, how a neurotic anxiety is changed into an apparently realistic one . . . Let us suppose that the agoraphobic patient is invariably afraid of feelings of temptation that are aroused in him by meeting people in the street. In his phobia he brings about a displacement and henceforward is afraid of an external situation. What he gains by this is obviously that he thinks he will be able to protect himself better in that way. One can save oneself from an external danger by flight; fleeing from an internal danger is a difficult enterprise.

Bibó is fully aware of the methodological questions that arise from deploying a notion taken from individual psychology to account for collective behaviour. If political hysteria may offer a rostrum for particular hysterics, it has its own causes and does not spring from a mere aggregation of personal hysterias. It embraces numerous individuals who, in personal terms, are perfectly balanced and healthy—even if they are actively propagating political hysteria. Bibó’s formulation of the relation between collective and individual experience avoids both simple identification and absolute dissociation:

The internal processes of a community may display astonishing analogies with individual psychological processes. The man who recoils in fright before the task ahead, yet blusters and grows aggressive to hide his fear, is the model for certain types of collective behaviour. But that does not mean that the community possesses a consciousness [as a man does] or that the two modes of behaviour, individual and collective, obey the same rules. The collective process both combines and structures individual reactions, thus implying a greater number of possible combinations but also a more important role for intentionality, shared objectives and conventions.

With these precautions in mind, it is tempting to consider whether the debate over the Muslim headscarf that has convulsed the French Republic over the past year, leading to the new law of February 2004, can be understood as an episode of political hysteria. The heated nature of the discussion and the quasi-unanimity—transcending the usual political divisions—of those urging that the headscarf be banned from state schools indicate that the diagnosis could be appropriate. Here, I will attempt to sketch in broad outline what such a pathological interpretation might reveal.

In this instance the root cause of the hysteria, the initial problem, would appear to be twofold. Firstly, there is the ‘breakdown of integration’ as it affects France’s 5 million-plus Muslim community: segregated cities, irreducible pockets of misery and unemployment, ghetto schools, educational failure, discrimination in the job and housing markets, workplace racism—and, finally, the retinue of bitterness and violence that these phenomena provoke in their victims, especially the young. Secondly: the slowdown or stagnation of any equalization of the sexes. Since its victories of the 1970s on contraception and abortion, the women’s movement has made scant progress. The gap between male and female salaries persists, women are largely excluded from the highest ranks of the political, administrative and economic hierarchies, domestic violence continues unabated, the porn industry is more profitable than ever. In other words: stalemate here, too. Finally, one point where these two—distinct—problems converge is in what the French call the ‘sensitive’ cities or districts, where the status of women is low and the constraints of male domination weigh most heavily.