‘IT IS not a question of religion,” French justice minister Michèle Alliot-Marie told Libération. “The republic lives with its face uncovered.” President Nicolas Sarkozy says that his government is simply defending France’s secular values and protecting women’s rights. So, if one is to believe France’s political class, the ban on the public wearing of the niqab or burqa – likely to be approved by the lower house of parliament tomorrow – is nothing to do with capitalising on public hostility to Islam or the banlieuessuburbs.
“It is a question of dignity, equality and transparency,” Alliot-Marie said in proposing the measure. France’s conservative ranks, it appears, are feminists to a man. It is, they say, all about defending women’s rights and dignity by protecting, whether they want it or not, the country’s tiny number of women who wear the face-covering veil – fewer than 2,000 – from being coerced into doing so. The bill, backed by almost 60 per cent in polls, provides for fines for wearing, heavy fines for those involved in coercion, and even heavier if the subject is a minor. Evidence of coercion has not been forthcoming.
They also say it’s about ensuring that terrorists or criminals cannot circulate freely, protected by the anonymity of the veil. It is a lame excuse, but will probably be the basis of the legal justification when the ban is challenged in the courts – France’s highest legal advisory body, the Council of State, has warned that an outright ban on face-covering veils would be completely unconstitutional.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the legislation, first mooted after National Front gains in elections, is largely a cynical attempt to pander to anti-Islamist, xenophobic sentiments also seen in other European capitals. In Belgium and Spain bills banning the wearing of face veils are awaiting senate approval. Switzerland last autumn passed a referendum banning the construction of minarets, while in Holland and Hungary there have been strong electoral gains by the far-right.
Underlying the move, however, is also an important French philosophical asssumption about the integration and assimilation of migrants. It sees the challenge in terms of the classic “melting pot” and social engineering, the erosion of cultural differences and homogenisation of society as new groups blend in. But integration can, and should, be a two-way process about both encouraging a commitment to and engagement by immigrants with their new home culture while, in return, embracing and respecting their cultural diversity.