Debating a burqa ban with a French MP — in English
France 24, the French international television channel, invited me to debate the proposed ban on burqas and niqabs today with one of the parliamentary deputies leading the campaign. That’s me on the left. On the right is Jacques Myard, deputy for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party and a spirited defender of French interests. Myard wanted to ban full facial veils in France two years ago but could not muster enough support at the time. The mood in the National Assembly has changed since then and another deputy, the Communist André Gerin, got together 58 deputies from different parties to launch the inquiry that began work yesterday.
Here’s the video on the France 24 website. It’s about 20 minutes long. Myard presents the French case for banning burqas and niqabs very clearly. If you’ve read about this debate and can’t understand it, he is worth hearing to get a good feel for how many French people state the case for a ban.
Myard puts the debate squarely in the context of laïcité, the quintessentially French way of separating church and state. That separation is such an important principle in Western countries that even the Vatican — history’s big loser in this debate — now supports it. However, this principle is interpreted in different ways in different countries.
In France, it is seen through the lens of French history, where the Catholic Church was so powerful that the parliament passed a law in 1905 officially separating the two and banishing religion to the private sphere. It is meant to protect the state against the power of religion — exactly the opposite of the American view that the separation protects religion against the power of the state. Religion, more specifically the Catholic Church, was very powerful in France in 1905, but nobody would argue that now. In fact, the civil religion of laïcité is much more powerful now.
(Photo: Woman in niqab, 17 Jan 2004/Mohammed Salem)
Defining the burqa/niqab issue in terms of laïcité frames this debate as a religious one. It widens a practice by a tiny minority of ultra-conservative Muslims into the stéréotype du jour of the Muslim minority (about 8 percent) that makes France so uncomfortable. In a Western society, having people hide their faces in public and refuse to show nature’s ID card even for driver’s licences or wedding ceremonies is a problem. Even at its strictest in centuries past, Christianity covered up its nuns but left their faces open. This is such a basic cultural fact in an open Western society that politicians should be able to appeal to this simple rule to outlaw such masks in the public sphere.
That would mean striking out into new territory. It would mean leaving the well-beaten and reassuring path of debate about laïcité, where one is assured of support, for a more challenging but more egalitarian approach based on the duties of a citizen in an open society.
Leaving the studio, France 24 had a taxi waiting to take me home. The 30-ish driver asked me if I’d been in a television discussion and what the topic was. When I mentioned the burqa, he asked “Are you for or against this freedom?” His tone and choice of words made it clear he was a Muslim opposed to a ban.
Once I explained my position, he said he was shocked to see some women appearing fully veiled at the Saturday market in his Paris suburb. This was not the Islam he knew, he said. He was not in favour of burqas either. However, he was deeply suspicious that the burqa ban was only a smokescreen for a wider assault against Islam itself. “Islamophobia is institutionalised in France,” he declared.
(Photo: French Muslims protest against Danish Prophet Mohammad cartoons, 11 Feb 2006/Vincent Kessler)
By the end of the short ride, we had ironed out our differences and more or less agreed. We parted on that positive note that one-on-one dialogue can bring. I’m afraid we will not see that kind of dialogue in the coming months, but a polarising debate that misses the main point. Let’s hope I’m wrong.