Sarkozy says Muslims should not feel singled out by full veil ban
France attempted the arguably impossible on Wednesday by presenting a bill to ban Muslim face veils and asking Muslims not to feel it was singling them out in the process.
President Nicolas Sarkozy made a brave effort of it at the cabinet meeting that approved the government’s draft “burqa ban” that we reported on here. Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who Sarkozy’s UMP party always seems to call on when things get tough, did her best in an interview (here in French) that got the part about Mecca wrong. There will be more of this in the months ahead as the bill moves through the National Assembly and Senate.
It’s hard not to single out Muslims when they’re the only ones who wear full face veils. The bill avoids mentioning them as such, saying only that the ban applies to “concealment of the face in public.“ But nobody’s fooled, a fact Sarkozy acknowledged in his comments to the cabinet: “This is a decision one doesn’t take lightly. It’s a serious decision because nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected. Laïcité means respect for all beliefs, for all religions.
“But we are an old nation united around a certain idea of personal dignity, particularly women’s dignity, and of life together. It’s the fruit of centuries of efforts. The full veil that fully conceals the face violates these values that are so fundamental for us, so essential to the republican contract. Dignity cannot be divided and in the public sphere, where we meet each other, where we are with others, citizenship should be lived with uncovered faces. So ultimately there can be no other solution than a ban in all public places.”
To critics who say the ban would victimise women who want to wear the veil, Alliot-Marie – seen at left leaving the cabinet meeting (photo: Jacky Naegelen) said: “As we see it, these women are victims. It would be ideal if these sanctions didn’t have to be imposed on them.”
She also rejected the argument that a ban would violate the free choice of women who wanted to cover up: “I personally think that the text is a fair balance between the various principles of our Constitution. It is a difficult balance, precisely because it is at the intersection of several equally essential principles: individual freedom, equality between men and women, respect for the dignity of women and the rules of living in the society. To my knowledge, however, the prohibition of walking naked in the street is not challenged on behalf of individual liberty.”
But the minister overdid the argument when she was asked if the ban would single out Muslims and put France at odds with Muslim countries. “Our country is not the only one to go down this route. Some Islamic countries have also banned this practice,” she said, using ‘Islamic’ when ‘Muslim’ would probably have been better.
“It’s even prohibited in Mecca. The president of the French Muslim Council (CFCM) himself emphasized that no Koranic verse prescribes the wearing of the full veil,” she added.
A quick dip into our photo database showed that niqabs are not banned in Mecca and our Riyadh bureau, which checked just to make sure, was told by an official that no such ban existed. Many Meccan women cover their faces, but that’s a personal decision, he said.
A Reuters television team in the southern city of Avignon asked a veiled woman named Kenza Drider what she thought of the coming ban. “For me it’s a psychological attack and it’s an obsession with women who have chosen to wear an item of clothing, and we don’t understand why there’s this obsession,” she said.
“Well, from a political point of view, we understand very well, we understand that it’s to make the French forget the more serious problems in France than the full veil. But for me it has more to do with racism and xenophobia, especially as it’s boosted Islamophobia in France.
“As for the 15,000 euro fine, I doubt that they’ll ever be able to find this famous bearded man who forces his women to wear veils, because we’ve all made the choice to wear this full veil, it’s not our husbands who force us. And secondly, I’d really like to know if we’re going to see police vans on the Champs Elysées handing out 150 euro fines to the wives of the Saudi princes.”
Denis Jacob, the head of the police union Alliance, brought up another question – how will this be enforced? “As for the police force’s work, I think quite honestly that we have other, much more important assignments than – excuse me for saying this, to go ‘burqa-chasing’,” he said.
As readers of this blog will know, I think that open societies, where citizens have to navigate through large anonymous crowds every day and be concerned about issues of public safety, cannot allow people to walk the streets daily with masks on. The common good requires that individuals accept certain limitations in the interest of public safety. But making a national law for a few hundred veiled women is like using a sledge hammer to swat flies. It will probably force them to stay at home altogether, which can’t be a welcome result. And it will do little to solve the problems for which the niqab is only the symbol.
To the French, veiled women represent a refusal to integrate, a rejection of women’s equality and a spreading Islamist drive to reimpose religion on a society that split church and state a century ago after too many struggles over faith and power. As Sarkozy pointed out, France is an old nation with hard-fought values and traditions built up over centuries. It is determined to uphold these values and traditions against people trying to introduce their own. There will be endless arguments for and against a ban in the coming months, including accusations of Islamophobia and outbursts against Muslims, but none looks likely to change this basic fact.