French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s call this summer to ban burqas, the full-body covering for Muslim women, has generated much heat but little light. This controversy is just the latest episode in the messier conflict over French identity and social cohesion.
By condemning burqas as a symbol of male oppression, however, Mr. Sarkozy ignored these underlying issues and may end up pushing some women further to the margins of French society.
France has taken bold steps in recent years to preserve its secular character amid a rapidly growing Muslim population. In 2004, it banned head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Last year, a court denied citizenship to a burqa-wearing Moroccan immigrant, saying that her radical religious practice was at odds with French values.
In his speech to the French parliament June 22, Sarkozy declared that the burqa is not simply a religious issue. He is right. It is a French issue, one that brings into question the very core of French identity.
By their very existence, women wearing the burqa embrace a kind of public distinctiveness at odds with the fundamental egalitarian character of French society; symbolically undermining the secularism and national unity upon which modern France rests.
Since its revolution, in 1789, France has been willing to incorporate ethnic and religious minorities into the larger society, but only so long as those minorities were prepared to keep their ethnic and religious traditions strictly within the private sphere.
Immigrants of any background are welcome to pursue their unique identities in the privacy of their own homes and places of worship, but in public everyone living within the country is emphatically considered to be French.
There is no conceptual space for the idea of dual or "hyphenated" identities (i.e., "African-American"), which are very popular in the openly multicultural United States.
In order to fit into this particularly French conception of identity, immigrants have had to adjust their own senses of identity along the lines of this public-private distinction.
These groups have had to prove themselves assimilable in various ways, including active participation within civic institutions such as the military and the public school system, as well as by the formation of a governing body to act as a liaison between the greater community and the French government.
The French Muslim community – most of whom arrived in mainland France burdened with the history of French colonization – has not always been as willing to prove themselves assimilable as other minority groups. Moreover, because of the nature of Islamic practice, which does not lend itself to organizational representation, the Muslim community has lacked, until very recently, a liaison who could lobby the French government on their behalf.
Muslim women in France have now been thrust into a void, searching for an identity in a country that often seems unwilling to accept even the possibility of a dual identity.
As a response, some have turned toward religious clothing to force their differences into the public sphere in order to make a statement about who they are and to stake their own claim in France and its history.
Instead of advocating social and educational programs that would be more inclusive, and using his position as a pulpit to acknowledge that French Republicanism has not, in fact, served the needs of all of its citizens, Sarkozy has become more extreme in his denouncements.
His refusal to admit that France is a patchwork of various religious and ethnic communities with their own history and thus their own needs, has served only to heighten tensions and create further misunderstanding.
Neither the feelings of disenfranchisement and anger toward the French majority nor the lack of understanding of why some Muslim women insist on wearing religious coverings will be solved by banning the burqa. It's worth noting that police estimate there are fewer than 400 women nationwide who wear it.
There are, no doubt, some women who are forced to wear this all-encompassing garment by their families, just as there are non-Muslim French women who are mistreated by their families in other ways. But to view the garment solely as a prison and as a symbol of male oppression, as Sarkozy does, oversimplifies a complex issue and may end up hurting the very women he's trying to help.
If Sarkozy is truly concerned about the rights and dignity of these women, he ought to use high-profile speeches to discuss their needs, their concerns, and to focus on what they can contribute to and gain from French society, rather than on what they wear while doing it.