France, a country known mainly for cheese, wine, surrendering, gourmet food and the Eiffel Tower, is not a country I often praise. There is, however, one thing which I envy about France: the way the French Republic sticks to its principles – mostly.
This week, a French parliamentary committee published its report recommending a ban on wearing veils which cover the face in public places. This is the latest episode in a movement within France to stop the wearing of the niqab, which the French press and government is belligerently, and wrongly, calling the burqa. The niqab is a full body veil with slits for the eyes. The burqa, a full body-and-face covering garment with a mesh allowing the wearer to see, is from Afghanistan and all but unseen in France.
Last year, President Sarkozy made the first presidential address to parliament in 136 years. The speech was broad and wide-ranging, and until that year had been banned to protect the separation of powers in France. This alone sparked controversy, especially as it was held at the Palace of Versailles leading some to perceive connotations of monarchy and a thirst for increased presidential power. However, the real controversy was not the move towards a king-like president, such as the position has become in America, but from a few remarks that Sarkozy made.
In his address, he stated that “[the burqa] will not be welcome on French soil… We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”
Since then, the wheels have been set in motion in this further progression towards a secular nation. Secularism, or ‘laïcité’ as the concept is known in France, is part not just of the culture, but part of the constitution.
Wearing ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols was banned in schools in 2004. It follows then that France should forbid the wearing of such a prominent religious symbol as the niqab. What is interesting, though, is that many of the arguments for forbidding the burqa revolve around security concerns and the difficulties in cultural integration of someone who cannot be seen, rather than in further removal of religion from the state. People pressing for the ban commonly point out, just as Sarkozy has, “The burqa is not a religious sign” and that “neither the burqa, nor the niqab,” as Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque says “nor any all-over veil, are religious prescriptions of Islam.”
France is currently home to over 5 million Muslims, the largest Islamic population of any European nation, most of whom are ethnically descended from North Africa where Muslim women don’t typically wear veils that fully cover the face. Reports suggest there are approximately 1900 women who currently wear the niqab or burqa in France. Sources claim that 90% who do are under 40, 2⁄3 are French nationals and nearly ¼ are converts. This means that the vast majority of those wearing the full veil are women whose mothers did/do not wear the full veil, from which it has been concluded that the increase in women wearing the veil in France is not from immigration of people from the Gulf, but from the growth of ultra-puritan Islam amongst the population.
Whether the ban will actually materialise is another matter. The expected course is for the report to be followed by the drafting of a bill and a debate in parliament. The main opposition party has stated it is against the ban, and the far-right movement led by Jean-Marie Le Pen has said a ban is unnecessary as French law already prohibits being out in public with a mask on.