Lay preaching
The reignition of the burka controversy in France reflects the political class's fears for the state's treasured "laïcité", writes Agnès Poirier
25 Aug 09

a_poirierThe reignition of the burka debate in France reflects the political class’s fears for the state’s treasured “laïcité”, writes Agnès Poirier

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the issue of banning the burka in France in June, he took everyone by surprise. The French public thought the debate had ended once and for all with the vote of a law in 2004 forbidding ostentatious religious symbols from schools and public administrations, in other word from all public spaces where we interact as citizens rather than as private individuals. Not that the law was even necessary: the Republican principle of equality and laïcité (loosely and inaccurately translated as “secularism” in English, for want of a better word) is inscribed in the historical 1905 law of separation between the Church and the State. However, the laissez-faire attitude of the socialist government of Lionel Jospin in the late 1980s, having allowed a handful of young schoolgirls to wear the hijab in class, made specific legislation suddenly a necessity. The national debate lasted 15 years until the law was finally passed. So why the resurgence of such a debate today in France?

For Sarkozy, the proposition to ban the burka in France is more a political manoeuvre than a statement of principle. When he declares emphatically: “I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of freedom,” his intention is clearly to further undermine the left on its ideological ground, and to continue monopolising France’s political agenda. However, politicking or not, a parliamentary committee was set up early July to discuss the subject and review a possible ban of the burka in France. Personalities from the French Muslim community expressed their views in front of the committee; among them, religious representatives but also jurists, historians and intellectuals. Since then, the French media have been full of comments and opinions on the subject. A question has constantly come up: even if you agree with the principle, how do you implement it and is it really necessary?

At the beginning of August, Le Monde seemed to provide an element of an answer. It revealed the details of a study conducted by the French Intelligence Services: fewer than 400 French women wear the burka. Out of three million French Muslim women, this is what one might call an extreme minority. After those figures were made public, many observers concluded that an official ban was a disproportionate measure to tackle what, they said, remained a folkloric oddity.

Still, the very vocal Fadela Amara, Sarkozy’s Urban Regeneration Minister, is among those who keep calling for a ban, even though she agrees that its application may prove difficult. In an interview with the Financial Times in August, she compared the burka to a spreading cancer — “the gangrene of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam” — that has no place in France, a country that is a beacon of an enlightened Islam. The same week that Ms Amara gave her interview, a municipal swimming pool in the suburb of Paris had to ask a swimmer wearing a “burkini”, a loosely fitting swimsuit with a hood covering her whole body, to leave the pool.

Some MPs in France are worried that France’s six million Muslims, the largest Muslim community in Europe, are becoming more religious, despite France’s long standing secular principles. In 1989, for example, 60 per cent of French Muslims observed Ramadan; that figure is now more than 70 per cent. Perhaps this is the reason why some French politicians are using a potential ban on the burka to show French society as a whole that any signs of religious radicalism won’t be accepted in France. The ban may never become a law but the fact that the idea is being debated is evidence to the French political class’s concerns.

Agnès Poirier is a London-based French journalist and political commentator