Uncovering France’s veil ploy


Poor France. On Tuesday, just in time for Bastille Day, the lower house of the French Parliament overwhelmingly passed a measure aimed at changing the offensive sartorial habits of 2,000 Muslim women who critics say are a threat to French values and identity.

The offending garments? The burka and the niqab, which cover the faces of a miniscule percentage of Muslim women in France (a quarter of whom are thought to have converted to Islam) and are at the center of a national debate over what it means to be French. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who championed the legislation, has said that such veils are “not welcome in France,” and characterized them as fundamentally incompatible with French values.

The new legislation, which is expected be approved by the Senate in the fall, will subject violators to a $185 fine and/or a citizenship course for a first offense, but those found to be forcing women to veil themselves in public could face fines of up to $38,000 and a year in prison.

I’ll start by saying that in this era of heightened globalization, every immigrant-receiving country has the right — even the duty — to reassess the boundaries of its culture, to carefully consider how newcomers should ideally be integrated into society. (I’m reminded of the U.S. urging the Mormons to drop the practice of polygamy so that Utah could be accepted into the Union.) But it seems to me that framing your national identity against — and drawing a line in the sand over — 2,000 women wearing veils, even ones as extreme as the burka, which covers even the eyes, or the niqab, which leaves a slit for the eyes, is a little pathetic.

I’ve seen women covered head to toe in Paris and in London. It’s an unsettling sight. Certainly, the beliefs that encourage the hiding of women behind robes are incompatible with basic Western concepts of equality and human rights. But then again, so is the state’s infringing on religious freedom or taking away a woman’s right to choose what to wear.

Clearly, the French public, which news reports say supports the ban overwhelmingly, sees the face veil as deeply threatening and symbolic of more than an affront to women’s rights. It is, in the words of French lawmaker Andre Gerin, the “tip [of] a black tide of fundamentalism.”

Yet the trouble France is having incorporating its Muslim population, which is the largest in any European country, has little to do with religion. By most accounts, the angry young men throwing firebombs in Parisian suburbs in 2005 were driven by feelings of socioeconomic disaffection, not religious faith. In fact, according to a 2006 Pew Center poll of Muslim attitudes, France is the only major European country in which the majority of Muslims did not claim loyalty to religion before nation.

So what can the so-called burka ban gain France? Those who oppose it think it will mostly serve to foment generalized anti-Muslim sentiment. That explains why — with some prominent exceptions — French Muslims generally oppose the ban, as well as why it can only make successful integration all the more difficult in the long run. It’s also not likely to have much of a liberating affect on the veil wearers themselves. Indeed, it may leave them even more isolated from society.

When you think about the ban in the context of liberté, egalité and fraternité, it’s hard not to be more worried about the state than the veiled ladies. France is a discombobulated country — according to one poll, 80% of French feel that their national identity is “weakening” — and it appears to be willing to risk the integrity of its political values in an attempt to reinforce a culture it fears losing.

Last fall, Sarkozy led his country through a disastrous three-month dialogue on national identity. It was disastrous because the town hall meetings tended to quickly devolve into racist ranting. In a televised New Year’s address, Sarkozy was reduced to imploring his countrymen “to debate without tearing ourselves apart, without insulting each other, without losing unity.”

And that’s the problem. Wherever Westerners feel beleaguered and threatened by high immigration, they too often mistake disdain of others for pride in themselves, fear for love of country, xenophobia for patriotism. The French legislation may feel right for the moment, but it does nothing to solve the larger challenge of integration later.