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Looking beyond the veil: France’s burka ban

Today marks an important moment in the history of the French Republic. Today is the day that a ban on the full Islamic veil comes into force in France. Women found wearing the either the niqab or the burka in public will be subject to a fine of 150 euros. The culmination of a lengthy and highly politicised process, the new law reveals the xenophobic currents that lie beneath the polished veneer of the French republican model.

The ban has provoked international controversy since it was initially debated in early 2010. International human rights organisations such as the Council of Europe and Amnesty International have condemned the ban as an impingement on the fundamental rights of certain women. What is surprising, however, is the apparent lack of controversy on the domestic political scene in France. In fact, arguments supporting the new law have crossed party lines and constructed unlikely alliances.


André Gerin, for example, the Communist deputy who chaired the parliamentary committee that recommended the ban, took his place alongside leading advocates on the right when he likened the full veil to a ‘portable coffin’. And the Socialist party, while uncomfortable with a full ban, largely agreed that some form of ban was necessary. In any case, the opposition to the full Islamic veil was clearly visible in the results of the parliamentary vote on the subject in July 2010: while 335 deputies voted for the law and a significant number abstained, only one deputy voted against the law.

What is perhaps most interesting about the whole debacle is the fact that only an estimated 2,000 of France’s some 2 million Muslim women wear the full facial covering. In other words, about 0.03% of the entire French population. So why has a law banning the full Islamic veil gained such support?

The ban on the veil has been a major project for President Sarkozy since 2009 when he chose to focus on the burka in his US-style ‘state of the union’ address. In the first ever presidential speech to simultaneously address both houses of French parliament, Sarkozy spoke of the ‘problem of the burka’ and declared that this ‘symbol of oppression’ was not welcome in France. Significantly, Sarkozy claimed that his gripe with the veil was not a religious one, but rather touched on a question of human rights.


The distinction here is crucial, for in positioning the debate in a human rights context, Sarkozy managed to reconcile an attack on the Islamic veil with the values of liberty and equality that are the cornerstones of the French republican model. Moreover, setting the parameters of the debate in this way had the twin effect of pre-empting criticism on the grounds of religious discrimination and making the law that was proposed shortly afterwards politically difficult to oppose.


But make no mistake; the question of human rights is not the primary motivating factor behind the ban on the veil. A study conducted by the At Home in Europe Project of the Open Society Foundation, released today, presents the findings of in-depth interviews with 32 women who wear the full veil in France. Of those interviewed the majority had themselves chosen to wear the veil, often against the wishes of their family. For many of these women, the decision to cover their faces forms part of a spiritual journey and, similar to the Catholic nuns who wear a headdress, the Islamic veil is a sign of their commitment to their faith. Of course there are isolated cases where women are coerced into wearing the veil, but coercion is a marginal element in this equation.

The real issues here are religion and, of course, politics. With regard to religion, the hostility towards the veil is representative of a more generalised opposition to Islam in France, an opposition that is grounded largely in fear. It is telling that much of the initial media commentary on the ‘burka law’ was accompanied by a description of the different types of Islamic head dress, complete with illustrations. The fact is, many people are ignorant of the complexities of the Islamic religion and hold perceptions that are coloured by a post 9/11 security climate that has brought about a blanket equation between Islam and fundamentalism.

Fear is easily translated into political currency and in France, the politics of fear has traditionally been the preserve of the far-right. No longer. More recently, the political rhetoric of the far-right has been matched by the mainstream right in a thinly-veiled attempt to poach voters from the Front National. Government sponsored debates on identity and secularism have inevitably come to focus on the question of Islam and the threat posed by an ‘inassimilable’ population. Only last week, the Interior Minister, Claude Guéant declared that the growth of Islam in France ‘posed a problem’.

The current drift of French society is dangerous for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the new law on the veil has legitimised the discourse of the far-right. Ironically, in attempting to poach the Front National’s votes, Sarkozy’s government has given momentum to their cause. The Front National has been campaigning for years of an anti-Islamic platform. Now their cause has been taken up by those in power.

Ultimately, the new law, which the government claims will facilitate greater social cohesion, will simply serve to marginalise Muslim women, and indeed the Muslim community more generally, by stigmatising aspects of their religion. The ban on the Islamic veil has undermined the fundamental values on which the Republic is built. Laïcité, the French form of secularism, appears to have taken on its own religiosity and become hostile to the beliefs of others rather than tolerating them. In today’s France it appears that those ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity stand strong...just as long as you don’t wear a burka.


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