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.”