Sarkozy dons burqa to camouflage reform agenda
In a column last week, I noted how Nicolas Sarkozy was a master at signalling left while turning right. Well, in his keynote address to both houses of parliament today, the conservative president went a step further. He summoned up the burqa to camouflage his real intention — relaunching a drive to reform France’s ossified social, education and tax system.
(Photo: President Sarkozy delivers his speech, 22 June 2009/Pool)
By declaring war on the all-enveloping full-length veil worn by only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy ensured that his secularist assault on religious fundamentalism would grab the headlines, and dominate intellectual debate. Here’s what he said:
The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.
Sarkozy did not call outright for a ban on the burqa, leaving it to parliament to decide. French lawmakers have already called for an inquiry into the wearing of the burqa, which covers the face totally, and the niqab, which covers all but the eyes. But the aim was clear — to distract attention from less crowd-pleasing but more significant proposals to ease taxes on labour and production, raise a big loan from the public to finance key spending priorities, slim down France’s bloated regional and local government and debate raising the legal retirement age.
The day after the budget minister admitted that the public sector deficit will hit more than 7 percent of Gross Domestic Product this year and next because of the impact of the financial crisis and the expect surge in unemployment, the burqa may not seem like the country’s biggest problem. So why has Sarkozy chosen to shine a spotlight on it?
(Photo: Woman in burqa in Kabul, 9 March 2009/Omar Sobhani)
Some may see it partly as a response to Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, in which the U.S. president reached out to the Islamic world and criticised restrictions on Muslim dress in Western countries. Others will think Sarkozy was pandering to populist anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in France, as he did to recapture voters from the extreme-right National Front in the 2007 presidential election. He reprised that tactic by highlighting his outspoken opposition to Turkey’s bid to join the European Union in the run-up to this month’s European Parliament elections.
Sarkozy can be sure of support from militant secularists on the left and right of French politics, just as ex-President Jacques Chirac was when he pushed through a law in 2004 barring the wearing of Muslim headscarves (and other conspicuous religious symbols) in schools. But does this secondary social issue really require legislation at all? And is it what French people should be focusing on in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s?
Perhaps Sarkozy needs such a distraction, alongside his crypto-Marxist denunciation of unbridled globalisation and financial capitalism, to disguise his reforming intent, given the strength of entrenched resistance to change in France. But the risk is that the French, when they watch a few soundbites on television, will remember the burqa and neglect the uncomfortable home truths the president told about the country’s failure to modernise its labour market, schools, universities and pension system. In a key passage on the need to bring down soaring debts and deficits while investing in the future, Sarkozy asked a striking question:
How come we have such a problem in preparing for the future. How have we fallen so far behind?
Let’s hope the French people and their lawmakers focus more on that question in response to the crisis than on banning the burqa.