France retreats from burqa ban plan amid burst of hot air
French Communist parliamentarian André Gerin, a leading proponent of a ban on full facial veils here, is an old hand at avoiding answering unwelcome questions. One that has become increasingly difficult for him is whether France should prohibit Muslim women here from wearing the veils, known as burqas and niqabs, as a way to combat Islamic fundamentalism. He got a real grilling about this on Europe 1 radio today. After ducking the persistent question “will you propose a legal ban?” several times, he finally admitted that, well … uh … there wouldn’t be a ban after all. There would be “recommendations” that could be supported by Muslim leaders here, i.e. would not include the ban they oppose.
(Photo: André Gerin supports striking firemen, 4 Feb 1999/Robert Pratta)
It looks like anything else said about this topic from here on in is simply hot air — and Gerin generated a lot of that, too. He first tried to brush off the Europe 1 questioner by responding that nobody appearing before the parliamentary inquiry he heads has spoken up for these head-to-toe coverings. Fine, but that’s not an answer. Behind this fashion of “walking coffins” was “a fundamentalist drift” he was determined to combat, he went on. The goal, he added with rising rhetorical stakes, was to launch “a great public action against the stranglehold Islamic fundamentalism has in certain areas of our country, especially over women.” The National Assembly should pass “a law of liberation (of women),” he declared. But it would only contain “recommendations” that he didn’t elaborate on.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has been raising the volume as well. “France is a country that has no place for the burqa or the subjugation of women — not under any pretext, any condition or any circumstance,” he declared on Thursday in a speech about France’s national identity. But he also didn’t say how France would translate this into practice.
(Photo: President Sarkozy, 12 Nov 2009/Philippe Desmazes)
Sarkozy gave no further details because Gerin’s panel, which meets weekly and is due to issue a report in early January, has the task of scouting out the next step. The National Assembly should then follow up with a law based on the report. That’s the way it worked back in 2004 after a similar panel led by parliamentarian Bernard Stasi ended up with a proposal that included a law banning headscarvesin state schools.
A burqa ban looked likely when Gerin’s inquiry began in June. After several sessions in recent months where many experts told him a ban just couldn’t work, his interview signalled that all this discussion will end not with a bang but a whimper. At one of those sessions in late September, mayors of several towns with large Muslim populations told him a ban could not be enforced. This week, several leading legal experts told him a ban would be unconstitutional. Even militant secularists who can’t stand all this cover up are against a burqa ban, fearing it could lead to other violations of basic rights.
“If it’s voted in, a burqa ban could be declared illegal by many judges and there would be many cases challenging it from local criminal courts all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, via the Constitutional Council,” law professor Denys de Béchillon warned. “I don’t know if women in burqas are really free to decide — some are and some aren’t. But in the current state of the law and probably the political philosophy of our democracies, it seems difficult to decide in their place if they’re free or not.”
Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be more smoke and mirrors over the next few months. Gerin’s committee holds its final meeting in December and issues its report early next year, so those are at least two more opportunities for airing the issue. Sarkozy wants France to hold a public debate about immigration and national identity early next year, with the question of the integration of Muslims high on the agenda.
(Photo: Veiled woman shopping in Roubaix, near Lille, 9 Aug 2009/Farid Alouache)
In France, Muslim veils are an issue that both the left and right can exploit, especially since there are probably only a few hundred or maybe a thousand women who completely cover their faces here. Unsurprisingly, there are regional elections here in March. Once they’re over and Gerin’s and Sarkozy’s debates have served their purpose, the National Assembly can get down to what’s supposed to be serious work and pass a law with no teeth in it.