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

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

Claude Paris/AP
Two women, one wearing the niqab, a veil worn by the most conservative Muslims that exposes only a woman's eyes, right, walk side by side, in the Belsunce district of downtown Marseille, central France, Friday. The French government's spokesman says he favors the creation of a parliamentary commission to study the small but growing trend of burqa wear in France.

Leading Muslims and the media in France here have indicated general support of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's striking comments Monday that the burqa cover for Muslim women is "not welcome on French soil," though opinion is divided on whether the president's cultural stricture should be extended to an outright ban of the burqa for women.

On Tuesday, a diverse group of French lawmakers announced a six-month study to see if a ban is warranted on the black veil, known in the Gulf states as a niqab, and in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan as a burqa.

President Sarkozy, in the first address in 136 years before a joint session of the French parliament and standing in the opulent Versailles Palace, took on the burqa in hard terms – a guaranteed headline maker – as part of a larger state-of-the-union-style speech.

"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," he said, going on to call it a form of "subservience" – not religious garb.

France has the largest Muslim population, some 5 million people, in Europe. In reacting to Sarkozy, Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of Muslim Faith, the first official Muslim group in France, says that wearing the burqa in a secular modern state itself "runs the risk of stigmatizing Islam."

But he added that most French Muslims emphatically opposed a ban, saying it threatened religious freedoms, and that "there are other ways of handling this than passing a law."

Muslim head scarves for woman have been a social and legal flash point in France for nearly 20 years. In March 2004, head coverings for Muslim girls and women were forbidden in public schools as part of a larger ban on "ostentatious religious clothing and symbols" that included large crosses and Jewish yarmulkes. The burqa is a more extreme form of covering, utilizing a slit or screen for vision.

Headlines for head scarves?

In downtown Paris, burqas are rarely seen – save around high-priced hotels and nearby shopping centers, which draw Gulf-state tourists. Their growth in the suburbs remains apocryphal, says Jean Bauberot, sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in Paris.

"There are no statistics on the wearing of the burqa," Mr. Bauberot says, adding that "for a calm, rational debate we need knowledge. But in recent days, several people seem to have found an answer even before making an inquiry!"

Sarkozy's flashing anti-burqa rhetorical sword at Versailles, home of "the Sun King" Louis XIV, came as something of a surprise.

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."

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."

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