Sarkozy’s veil climbdown

The Guardian - 16 January 2010

Has Nicolas Sarkozy lost face in his battle against the burqa? One might think so considering his latest compromise on the issue. While the French president firmly believes that these allegedly Islamic veils are “a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” which are “not welcome” anywhere in the Fifth Republic, he now thinks the only workable ban would be on public transport or in civic buildings.

In a country which is meant to champion secularism and gender equality, it really is quite a climbdown. The vast majority of French people, including most Muslims, believe that face coverings should be banned completely. They’re not only intimidating and divisive, but actually have very little to do with Islam, and far more to do with central Asian and Middle Eastern traditions. They certainly engender more than a sneaking suspicion that they’ve been imposed by men intent on keeping their spouses or daughters away from the common gaze.

Sarkozy clearly laid out the popular view with the words: “The full veil is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.” A ban would be an entirely democratic one which would not stigmatise anyone, least of all members of France’s six millon-strong Muslim community, Sarkozy argued.

Despite this, Sarkozy left us in little doubt that all those who wear face coverings – whether burqa or niqab – are Muslims living in a country which increasingly expects everyone to “adapt” to the Gallic way. It was certainly no coincidence that the clampdown on religious symbols in state schools which began in 1994 centred on Muslim headscarves. Sixteen years on, the only reason Sarkozy has stopped short of a full burqa ban is because he thinks it would be thrown out by appeal courts under European human rights legislation.

Such legal challenges would be a huge embarrassment to Sarkozy, especially during his rightwing government’s ill-conceived national identity debate which is allowing racist and Islamophobic views to masquerade as 21st-century patriotism. Even anti-terrorism judges have captured the increasingly hostile nature of the arguments by saying that a full ban on the veil would lead to an increase in Islamic extremism.

Under such circumstances the real issue raised by Sarkozy’s burqa ban – and especially the watered down version – is not the freedom of the handful of few women who wear full veils (less than 2000 and most of them confined to isolated housing estates, according to all reliable estimates), but the very place of Islam in modern France. By targeting his tokenistic policies and soundbites at a harmless minority, Sarkozy and his cronies succeed in linking Islam with everything from sexism to national security threats. If these associations are genuine, then they should be dealt with in a manner which is honest and unambiguous. Anything less results in weak compromises engendering nothing but fear and suspicion, often without anybody really understanding why.

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