From The Economist print edition
FOR American commentators who like to denounce European complacency in the face of an increasingly assertive Islam, France is an intriguing test-case. It is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority, numbering some 5m-6m, and it unapologetically expects Muslims to adapt to French ways. In 1994 the government began clamping down on religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, in state schools. Ten years later it banned all “ostentatious” religious signs, including the veil, from state schools and other public buildings. Now yet another tightening is in the works: a proposed ban on wearing the burqa in any public places.
Jean-François Copé, parliamentary leader of the ruling UMP party, this week submitted a draft law stating that “nobody, in places open to the public or on streets, may wear an outfit or an accessory whose effect is to hide the face”. A few exceptions would be made, he said, such as for carnivals. At other times, anybody refusing to take off a face-covering could be fined €750 ($1,090). He hopes parliament will debate the draft at the end of March, shortly after the regional elections.
The move by Mr Copé, an ambitious politician, is a parliamentary not a government-led initiative. Yet it has broad backing. President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last year that the burqa was “not welcome on French soil”. François Fillon, the prime minister, said this week that he backed the idea of a ban. Mr Copé says that he already has 220 deputies supporting him.
When the French refer to the burqa, they do not mean the Afghan outfit, with a cloth grille over the eyes, which is not seen in France; they mean the niqab, the head-to-toe covering that leaves a narrow slit open for the eyes, which is traditionally found in the Gulf. Ten years ago, even this garment was virtually unknown in France, since most French Muslims originate from north Africa, where traditionalists cover only the hair, not the face. Today, according to intelligence estimates, some 1,900 women wear the niqab in France.
Yet even this number is tiny, so why are the French so exercised? One reason is their century-old secular tradition, which fiercely defends the separation of faith and state, and makes most French people uneasy about conspicuous religion. Nativity plays or carol concerts in state primary schools are unthinkable, as would be the swearing-in of presidents over the Bible. When the Swiss voted recently to ban the construction of minarets on mosques, Mr Sarkozy urged believers of all faiths in France to “practise their religion with humble discretion”. Liberal outsiders see this as intolerance. But to the French, who fought hard-won battles against authoritarian clericalism, it stems from a secular wish to keep religion in the private sphere.
Yet today’s concerns about the niqab go far beyond secularism. “The burqa is not a religious sign,” Mr Sarkozy said last year, but rather a “sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” of women. For six months, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry has been holding hearings about the burqa. One by one, French Muslim figures have filed in to state that, as Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque put it, “neither the burqa, nor the niqab, nor any all-over veil, are religious prescriptions of Islam.”
Moreover, as Dounia Bouzar, a French Muslim anthropologist, pointed out to the commission, most of the women she sees wearing the niqab are young. Intelligence sources suggest that 90% of them are under 40. Two-thirds are French nationals, half of them second- or third-generation immigrants, and nearly a quarter are converts. In other words, this is not an influx of women from the Gulf, but a statement by young French Muslim women, whose own mothers did not cover their faces. Mr Boubakeur and other mainstream French Muslim leaders are clear about its origins: it is “an invasion of salafism”, an ultra-puritan branch of radical Islam.
French politicians of many stripes are keen to draw a firm line in order to thwart further proselytising, particularly in the heavily Muslim banlieues. The (communist) chairman of the parliamentary commission, which is due to report at the end of January, favours a burqa ban. So do Eric Besson, a former Socialist who is now minister for immigration and national identity, and Fadela Amara, a Muslim minister and former campaigner for abused women, who once called the burqa a “prison”.
Yet even if it is justified on security grounds, a ban would still be controversial. The opposition Socialist Party opposes the burqa but frets that outlawing it may be counterproductive. The French Council of the Muslim Faith, an official body, fears that a ban would stigmatise Islam. As it is, Mr Besson has caused unease by launching a national consultation on what it means to be French that has unleashed a torrent of anti-Muslim commentary. Some argue that a ban would play into the hands of those who spread hardline propaganda. Others worry that women, who are often under domestic pressure to wear the burqa, would be unfairly punished. “France would be the only country in the world that sends its policemen…to stop in the street young women who are victims more than they are guilty,” wrote Laurent Joffrin, editor of Libération.
Mr Fillon said this week that he wanted first to pass a parliamentary resolution to condemn the wearing of the burqa; legislation could follow, but only after considering its compatibility with European law and with the French constitution. Under the 2004 law, the burqa is already banned in public schools, as it is on identity cards. Since last year, the wearing of balaclavas can also be banned during or near protests. The planned burqa ban would forbid the covering of the face even in the street, but not the wearing of an all-over veil that leaves the face exposed.
France is likely to come in for much outside criticism for its burqa ban. It will be accused of illiberalism, and disregard for freedom of expression, or of imposing a Western interpretation of women’s oppression. In his speech in Cairo last year, America’s Barack Obama said that “it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.” Yet all liberal democracies have to make compromises to balance freedom and security. France will argue that this is not a campaign against Islam, but an effort to uphold its values when they are being tested as never before. The world may not see it that way.