Bumps on the road towards a burqa ban in France

September 30, 2009

burqa-libraryRemember all the talk about France banning the burqa and niqab Muslim veils for women a few months ago? That project is now in the parliamentary inquiry phase, a six-month fact-finding mission expected to wind up late this year and produce a draft bill to outlaw them. That’s the way France handled it in 2003 when it wanted to stop Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to state schools. But the process seems more complex this time around. There’s less passion and more hesitation in the debate. A smooth progression from the inquiry to the ban and to its implementation no longer looks assured.

(Photo: Woman in a niqab outside a public library in Ronchin, northern France, 9 Aug 2009/Farid Alouache)

To get a feel for the debate, I dropped by the panel’s latest open hearing late on Tuesday and listened to the arguments being made. Five mayors from suburbs with Muslim minorities were due to speak to the panel, which is led by a Communist deputy named André Gerin who makes no bones about his view that a ban is needed. Mayors like these men play a key role in an issue like this, because they are on the front lines dealing with social change and are taken seriously when they clamour for change. Several are also deputies in the National Assembly – France allows them to occupy multiple offices – so they can easily lobby at the national level for something they want.

Sitting alone at the press table in the committee room, I soon saw why the drive towards a ban seems to be hitting some bumps. The mayors don’t know what they want. All think something has to be done, but most are worried that an outright ban wouldn’t work. Here’s my news story on the session.

panelThis was the fifth of 16 hearings planned by the panel, which is officially called the Mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national (Fact-finding mission on the practice of wearing the full veil on national territory). They’ve already heard representatives of women’s right groups, spokespeople of associations defending France’s secular system, a Muslim women’s rights advocate and two Muslim intellectuals and they plan to visit the ethnically mixed suburbs of Paris, Lyon, Lille and Marseille. You can often predict what will be said, but not always – some of the militant secularists turned out to be against a burqa ban because it meant the state interfered with personal choice.

(Photo: A televised session of the panel/National Assembly)

To give you a better feel for the debate, here’s a summary of my notes and quotes from the session:

*Claude Dilain, mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois and chairman of the Association of Mayors of French Cities and Suburbs, said “the veil concerns the issue of women’s dignity and it’s clearly a brake on integration”. Within his association, though, “views (about a ban) are divided. Lots of officials are talking about the risks of passing a law. They’re concerned about political and civic risks.”

“Who’ll be responsible for enforcing this law? There’s a lot of concern about this.” France did not necessarily need a law, he said, but “it’s important that the Republic reasserts its values in a strong symbolic manner … It would be a mistake to look at the full veil just from the religious angle. There are socio-economic causes as well.  People are taking refuge in identities.”

“We’d have lots of difficulty trying to enforce a law on the ground. Now, the police in Clichy-sous-Bois don’t even issue parking tickets in some areas at some times… There has been a strong rise in religious demands. We mayors can’t be left alone with this. This is happening several times a day. You can’t make a strong statement defending the Republic now without being called an Islamophobe.”

burqa-market*Jean-Pierre Blazy, mayor of Gonesse north of Paris, admitted: “I’m hesitant. I can’t say today that we need a law. But we shouldn’t just dump the problem on the mayors. We need a firm dialogue to make secularism come alive in this country.” He stressed that he supported the 2004 headscarf ban and was concerned about growing religious demands by Muslims for exceptions to the usual municipal services. “If we have a law, we have to have accompanying measures with it,” he said, to make the measure more palatable to Muslims. One measure he suggested was to teach Arabic in state schools.

(Photo: Veiled woman shopping in Roubaix, near Lille, 9 Aug 2009/Farid Alouache)

*Renaud Gauquelin, mayor of Rillieux-La-Pape near Lyon, said there were very few veiled women in his town but growing problems with Muslim demands in pools, hospitals and schools. On veils, he said: “Is this a regression for the rights of women in France? Certainly. Is there a parallel development for men? No.”

“I’m tending towards a law,” he said, noting that laïcité, the legal separation of church and state, was written into the constitution, as were women’s rights, and failing to ban the veil would amount to afailure to defend those rights. “What sign would we give to women around the world? To Iranian women fighting for their freedom? To Saudi women who want to be able to drive a car?”

*Jean-Yves Le Bouillonnec, mayor of Cachan south of Paris, thought existing laws would be enough to deal with the burqa issue. “If we pass a law, how would we enforce it? What would the sanctions be for violating it? There could be no worse message to send than to pass a law and tell people to obey it without saying they will be punished for not obeying it… I can’t see a ban working. It’s extremely complex and almost completely inapplicable.”

He suggested the National Assembly might want to pass a strong resolution reaffirming republican principles.

burqa-eiffel*Xavier Lemoine, mayor of Montfermeil east of Paris, said some Muslims in his town were becoming “reislamised” and this was visible in a rise in veil wearing and pressure some Muslims put on co-religionists who don’t fast during Ramadan. “It’s not always in the poorer areas, but also in the middle class areas that you see these demands,” he said. He noted that the full veil was not required by the Koran “but it’s in the Sunnah”, France had to take a strong position against the veil and understand how Islam was different from Western traditions. “In Judeo-Christian society, the individual is predominant. In the Muslim world, the individual exists through belonging to a community. The weight of the community is terrible.” At the same time, officials should separate Islam from its fundamentalist fringe when analysing religious issues.

(Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)

Still, he was also hesitant about voting for a ban. “I prefer to do nothing for a good reason than something for a bad reason.”

Several panel members had questions or observations for the invited mayors.

*André Gerin, a Communist deputy, head of the fact-finding panel and former mayor of Venissieux suburb of Lyon, called full veils “medieval customs spread by salafists”. The veil was the I in an Islamisation drive by radical Muslims. Gerin said France should not only consider a ban on full veils but also go after “the gurus” who are not in these neighbourhoods but are spoiling everything”. (BTW Gerin gave no details about who he meant by “gurus”, a term usually used by Hindus and Sikhs. But they call all full veils burqas, using the Afghan term, even though almost all of them worn here are Arab-style niqabs. Go figure.)

*Jean Glavany, a Socialist deputy, said fundamentalism was part of all religions these days. “This idea of separating the fundamentalists from the religion doesn’t work. To say that fundamentalist excesses have nothing to do with the religion is like saying hooliganism has nothing to do with football or doping has nothing to do with the Tour de France.”

“We should refuse to make legislators into exegetists.”

*Jacques Myard, conservative UMP deputy and mayor of Maisons-Lafitte northwest of Paris, warned against turning into a  “soft democracy” that could not stand up for its own values. He argued for a ban with punishments for violators. “Sanctions have to be rehabilitated. Not cutting off of heads and hands, of course.  But this is the order of things in a structured society with its own values. It has to be respected. They can’t impose their personal order.”

“Is Islam compatible with laïcité? That’s not my problem.  It’s not for us to decide if it’s compatible, it’s up to them. In the Muslim world, you find all kinds of interpretations. It’s not our role to solve this.”

Understanding the French approach to its Muslim minority has often proved difficult for outsiders. Does this make it any clearer?

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