French commission reignites burka debate
Natasha Lehrer: France steps closer to banning the Islamic face veils in public with the release of a landmark parliamentary report.
26 Jan 10

France steps closer to banning the Islamic face veils in public, reports Natasha Lehrer

The much anticipated report by the French parliamentary commission established to consider a ban on the wearing of the burka or the niqab in public in France was finally released today.

As expected, the commission stopped short of recommending a blanket ban on the wearing of the burka, proposing instead a ban on covering the face in administrative buildings, schools, hospitals and public transport. “This measure would oblige people not only to show their faces at the entrance to all public buildings but also to keep their faces uncovered during the entire period in which they are in a public building.” The report goes on to emphasise that “the consequence of violating this injunction would not be criminal but would be sanctioned by the service being sought being refused.”

In addition the commission suggests that wearing the burka might also be banned in buildings used by members of the public — for example banks or post offices — where identity checks and CCTV are used for security purposes, for example to prevent robbery. For similar reasons of public safety, driving whilst wearing the burka might also be forbidden.

Refusing to serve someone who has chosen to cover her or his face in a building used for some sort of public administration does not pose any judicial problems, although it does beg some obvious questions as to how the French administration suggests fully veiled women be prevented from, for example, traveling on the metro, if it is not technically illegal to do so.

The idea of refusing a Carte de Séjour, or working visa, to those who wear the burka is rejected by the report. However the commission does suggest reviewing the law on asylum so that a resident’s permit might be refused “to anyone who manifests the radical practice of a religion which is incompatible with the values of the République, in particular the principal of equality between men and women, since this would be considered a failure of integration”.

The amount of media interest in this report both in France and abroad is certainly vastly out of proportion to the number of women who currently wear the burka or niqab in France — the figure is generally put at around 2000 women throughout the country, a large proportion of whom live in the suburbs of Lyon.

To some extent the pertinent question is whether this report will contribute to an increased radicalisation of Muslim women in France as a direct response to the very attempt to suppress radicalisation. More interesting perhaps is the wider context of Sarkozy’s “debate on national identity”, which has, unfortunately, come to focus less on French identity but rather on French Muslim identity, leading to uncomfortable questions about the relationship between the French model of integration and French racism. Interestingly however the debate has cut right across party lines. The original bill was proposed by a member of the still-lively French Communist Party (although the response of the leader of the PCF, Marie Georges Buffet, was notable for its measured intelligence: “This law will do nothing but stigmatise a community whose women are still suffering”), whilst it is largely supported by Sarkozy’s centre right UMP and rejected by the National Front’s Jean-Marie le Pen (who declared that he thought burka-wearing women could be effectively dealt with by the police). Some 60 per cent of the population is in favour of a ban on the burka, again cutting right across political lines. Many on the left speak of a threat to their beloved “Laicitè” — a word whose English meaning, secularism, barely touches on its conceptual significance to the French. The grip that the Catholic church once had on every French institution remains fresh in the memories even of those who are too young to have witnessed the revolution of May 1968. For all those who believe in the spirit of French republicanism, some kind of ban on the burka is not only perfectly logical, it is absolutely necessary.

The commission’s conclusions are fragmentary and somewhat mealymouthed, which is, quite possibly, the point. If you can’t take public transport, go to the doctor or the bank, drive to pick your children up from school, buy stamps or even arguably go to the supermarket, what need for a blanket ban? Women who wear the burka, either through choice or because they are forced to by their families, will be faced with a choice — remove the burka or remove yourself almost entirely from the public arena. Nonetheless, the idea that the government might be colluding in oppressing women — some of whom who may find themselves quite literally forced off the streets by these draconian measures which seem to have been drafted with the sensibility of the French male in mind rather than the rights of Muslim women — seems not to have occurred to the authors of the report, nor indeed to many ordinary French people.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer and translator. She lives in Paris.