In a column last week, I noted how Nicolas Sarkozy was a master at signalling left while turning right. Well, in his keynote address to both houses of parliament today, the conservative president went a step further. He summoned up the burqa to camouflage his real intention — relaunching a drive to reform France’s ossified social, education and tax system. (Photo: President Sarkozy delivers his speech, 22 June 2009/Pool)
By declaring war on the all-enveloping full-length veil worn by only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France, Sarkozy ensured that his secularist assault on religious fundamentalism would grab the headlines, and dominate intellectual debate. Here’s what he said:
The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.
Sarkozy did not call outright for a ban on the burqa, leaving it to parliament to decide. French lawmakers have already called for an inquiry into the wearing of the burqa, which covers the face totally, and the niqab, which covers all but the eyes. But the aim was clear — to distract attention from less crowd-pleasing but more significant proposals to ease taxes on labour and production, raise a big loan from the public to finance key spending priorities, slim down France’s bloated regional and local government and debate raising the legal retirement age.
The day after the budget minister admitted that the public sector deficit will hit more than 7 percent of Gross Domestic Product this year and next because of the impact of the financial crisis and the expect surge in unemployment, the burqa may not seem like the country’s biggest problem. So why has Sarkozy chosen to shine a spotlight on it?