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.
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.