French burqa debate is a smokescreen

The Guardian - 08 July 2010

You may except the impassioned rhetoric surrounding France’s so-called “burqa ban” to come from the women who actually wear them, but in fact it’s mainstream politicians who are making all the noise. President Nicolas Sarkozy describes the full Islamic veil as “a sign of enslavement and debasement“. Immigration minister Eric Besson calls it a “walking coffin”. Even the usually restrained prime minister François Fillon accuses wearers of “hijacking Islam” and displaying a “dark sectarian image“.

This kind of melodramatic language will dominate the debate currently being carried out in the national assembly in Paris as deputies consider a banning bill. The venomous soundbites will lead TV and radio bulletins, with newspapers and internet sites competing to come up with equally contentious headlines. The images used to accompany the scaremongering will be a combination of sinister figures clad in black; if possible set against the background of the kind of rundown council estates that blight France’s reputation for civic élan.

But why the anger? What’s the point of it all? There are only around 2,000 women in France who actually wear a burqa (the cloak that covers a woman from head to foot) or a niqab (the more genuinely Islamic veil that conceals a woman’s face). If the bill is passed next week, and then approved by the senate in September, then all can expect a nominal fine of €150 if they’re caught wearing the garments. “Re-education” about republican values and civic responsibility is a more likely sanction.

The fact that husbands or fathers who force women to wear them face a year in prison and a €30,000 fine under the terms of the bill will be welcomed by all who believe in equality of the sexes. But, again, the number currently complaining about this kind of coercion is all but insignificant.

France’s highest court, the council of state, has already suggested the proposed ban may be unconstitutional, with European human rights lawyers suggesting that you can no more prevent someone wearing an Islamic veil as, say, a skiing balaclava, fancy-dress mask, or even a motorbike crash helmet.

To understand why burqa rage is such a common failing of big name politicians, we need look no further than the Liliane Bettencourt affair, another hot topic which has seen Sarkozy’s government effectively accused of helping the billionaire L’Oréal heiress to evade tax. This week it was even claimed that Bettencourt made illegal cash donations to Sarkozy’s election campaign in 2007 – claims which the president vehemently denies.

Against this background, what better way to forget about state corruption than through an utterly artificial national identity debate, with the dreaded Islamic veil anchoring it? It was Sarkozy who started one a year ago, as he pretended to revive Gallic patriotism by getting people talking about what makes them feel good about being French. Sadly, thousands who took part in badly organised discussions in town halls and on internet forums chose – like the president – to concentrate on the negative, and especially veils. It was as early as last year that Sarkozy helpfully described both the burqa and the niqab as “an affront to republican values”.

Sarkozy and his allies say a ban will reinforce France’s secular values, orlaicité, with an extension of the legislation that saw all religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf, banned in state schools in 2004. In reality, it will help the increasingly unpopular head of state to win votes among supporters of the Front National, the overtly racist party that views the very presence of some 5 million Muslims in France as the greatest of all threats to ‘”national identity”. There is no doubt that Sarkozy and his cronies place Islamic veils alongside all of the other deeply negative cliches surrounding Islam, from anti-western fundamentalists threatening terrorism, to disaffected youths rioting on the kinds of estates where burqa and niqab wearers invariably live.

As countries such as Belgium and Spain prepare their own burqa bans(along with oddballs in Britain including members of the UK Independence party and, inevitably, a determined Tory MP), what better way for Sarkozy to try to revive his popularity than with a bit of disingenuous Muslim-baiting? And how convenient it would be for the president if a parliamentary debate focusing on the dressing habits of some of the poorest women in France should take attention away from a growing scandal involving the richest?

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