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France: liberty, equality, and fraternity – but no burqas

After Sarkozy's speech, France divided over prospect of ban.

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Earlier this month, with President Barack Obama at Normandy, he took a milder position. Obama in Cairo had earlier said in comments to Muslims: "Our basic attitude is, we aren't going to tell people what to wear."

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Yet two of Sarkozy's high-profile female ministers, both of Muslim origin, Fadela Amara, and Rama Yade, took a leading position in recent days. Ms. Yade said a ban might be acceptable if it protected women forced to wear the burqa. Then, with a Communist Party house member, André Gerin, leading a group of 58 diverse Assembly members, Sarkozy found political space, and a spicy issue.

Part of a European push back?

The speech is seen here as a politically painless affirmation of French values, and part of an ongoing Sarkozy effort to assume a leadership mantle in Europe. With Britain's Gordon Brown weak, with Germany's Angela Merkel facing a tough campaign, and with Europe's voters in EU elections earlier this month signaling approval of a center-right politics that emphasizes European cultural traditions and a harder line on immigration, the French president had a good stage to stand on.

Catherine Kintzler, philosopher emeritus at the University of Lille, argues it is impossible to prove a woman wearing a veil wants it or does not want it. She says it can't be banned in France as a public religious expression, since France has no law forbidding display of religious symbols or garb (such as a priests' cloaks).

But Ms. Kintzler still advocates a ban on the burqa as an effacement of individuality, of a woman's humanity, and since it inherently "collectively depersonalizes women."

Yet, Bauberot argues that a ban on the veil represents an illiberal use of state power, in the service of liberalism: "It's similar to the idea that a state can emancipate individuals, in spite of themselves. It's a Jacobin creed in which the state knows what is best for its citizens."

'I am happy behind the veil'

The French blogosphere on Tuesday was split. In comments on media reports, many writers said the burqa and niqab were extreme forms of clothing out of place in a free society and repressive for women. But others said singling out a form of religious clothing associated with a large minority faith will implicitly demonize or shift public opinion against that faith.

One Muslim woman, Caroline Chaiima, writing in, said she wore a veil: "Let those most closely concerned speak. I am a French woman born in France, with French parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and I am a Muslim. I wear the full veil and I feel like saying: So what? I am happy behind the veil, I protect myself from depraved stares. Neither my father, nor my brother, nor my husband forced the full veil upon me; it's a personal choice."