Notes on France’s ban-the-burqa debate
The French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils.
(Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)
A few politicians have been proposing a ban on full facial veils ever since France outlawed headscarves from its state schools in 2004. The issue came up recently when 58 politicians signed a petition for an inquiry into whether burqa wearing should be outlawed in France. But it finally took off on June 22 when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared these veils “unwelcome in France” as a symbol of the subjugation of women and backed the call for an inquiry.
Few women in France actually wear these veils, either the Afghan-style burqa covering the face completely or the Arabian niqab with space open for the woman’s eyes. It is perhaps telling that the French say burqa for both of them, even though the full veils occasionally spotted in minority neighbourhoods outside Paris or Lyon are niqabs. Pictures of burqas in French media are usually from Afghanistan. Anyway, the politicians who petitioned for the commission say the numbers of fully veiled women are rising and that seems to be true. But the evidence is always anecdotal and there are no statistics to support this argument.
One might be tempted to call the inquiry a “fact-finding mission” but, if past practice is anything to go by, we may not get many facts in the final report anyway. France has been through this exercise before. In mid to late 2003, the so-called Stasi Commission studied the state of laïcité (separation of church and state) in six months of work including 100 open and 40 closed hearings. Many of these sessions were covered by the media. The final report had long and eloquent sections on French law, history and laïcité. But it had no empirical survey data on how many schoolgirls wore hijab headscarves or how often women refused to be treated by male doctors in hospitals.
Nobody seemed surprised at the lack of data at the time because this was not a “fact-finding mission.” The exercise was meant to find arguments to ban the Muslim headscarf in state schools. This was confirmed when the report was finished and then President Jacques Chirac promptly picked one of the commission’s 26 proposals — the veil ban — and quickly had a law passed to enforce it. There was a wave of protests by some Muslim groups but they did not last long.
(Photo: Protest in Strasbourg against the headscarf ban, 20 Dec 2003. The banner reads “A law against the headscarf or against Islam”/stringer)
The inquiry and the public debate surrounding it showed that defending laïcité and upholding basic rights such as gender equality and freedom of expression enjoy wide support across the political spectrum in France. In an age of advancing globalisation and Europeanisation of so many other political issues, these have become key identity issues for the French. They’re what are known in American political slang as “motherhood and apple pie” issues that most people agree on. The burqa inquiry petition, for example, was launched by a communist deputy but 40 of its 58 signatories are from Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party.
The timing of the petition suited Sarkozy’s political calender well. Elections in France’s 26 regions, now almost all run by the opposition Socialist Party, are due around March of next year. By that time, the burqa commission should have finished its job and the government might be ready to present a burqa ban law bound to be popular . As my colleague Paul Taylor wrote here, the issue also fit into Sarkozy’s plan to relaunch his drive for some far-reaching reforms: “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.” It’s useful to remember that, back in 2004, Sarkozy didn’t like the headscarf ban idea and only went along with it reluctantly.
As France heads into this debate, two questions stand out:
- If the commission really wants to find out about burqa and niqab wearing in France, it should provide solid statistics to back up its claim that it is important and growing. Will the fact-finding panel come up with any facts?
- Masked people present a problem of identity and security in an open society. Faces are a natural identity card and a rough indicator of a person’s mood. Covering them hides the wearer’s most indentifying feature and denies to the rest of the public sphere — especially the police — the ability to see the others in their midst. Hijabs present no such problem because they leave the face uncovered. Why do politicians opt for the arguments about laïcité and women’s equality when the broader question of identity and security in an open society also confronts them?
My guess is that no statistical surveys will be made because the results would show the actual number of women involved is very small and this could undercut arguments for a ban. The question of identity and security will probably also not be asked because it would involve a deeper debate about what is and is not admissible in the public sphere. We had a post earlier this year about this debate in North America and how difficult it is to decide this.
Why bother with a more complex debate when laïcité and women’s equality are sure-fire winning arguments?
(Photo: Women shop for clothes at Muslim fair in northern Paris, 14 April 2007/Benoit Tessier)