France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the original “French doctors” who has been active in humanitarian causes for decades, once said the only major conflict he knew that had nothing to do with religion was the 1969 “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras. With a perspective like that, he naturally asked when he took over the foreign ministry in 2007 where religion figured in its diplomatic analysis and strategy. The answer was that it didn’t really figure in it, at least not in a systematic way. Laïcité — France’s trademark separation of church and state — had created a kind of “we don’t do God” reflex in its diplomacy. Kouchner began a series of internal discussions about the new challenges to diplomacy, issues such as global warming, terrorism, sustainable development or religion. One of the results was the establishment last summer of a religious affairs bureau at the Quai d’Orsay.
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.