Liberté unravelled: Sarkozy’s burqa ban stumbles into being

By Kevin Bloom 11 April 2011

After two years of trying, President Nicolas Sarkozy has finally met with success in his attempt to ban the “covering of the face” in France. The law came into effect on Monday, 11 April. What does this mean for the country that brought us the French Revolution and some of the most important rallying cries in the history of democracy? By KEVIN BLOOM.

In the prologue to his 2006 New York Times bestseller America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, Mark Steyn, a conservative Canadian writer and social commentator, takes aim at two relatively influential figures on the British scene. The first is Martin Amis, who he mocks for fretting about environmental catastrophe when the real threat is clearly Islamism; the second is Tony Blair’s former foreign secretary Jack Straw, who in his mind was unforgivably soft and reconciliatory on the issue of the Danish cartoons (the ones that satirised the prophet Mohammed and provoked riots across the Muslim world). Steyn’s thesis in the book is that Europe is a dying civilisation, that its indigenous populations are under siege by Muslim immigrants who have a much higher birthrate, and that its traditions of tolerance and free speech are ill-equipped to handle a brand of fundamentalism that’s antithetical to the very idea of human liberty.

If Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t read America Alone – and it’s highly unlikely that he didn’t – he certainly has a firm grasp of the book’s central argument. Because today, Monday 11 April 2011, a ban on “full face veils” (the first of its kind in Europe) goes into effect in France, and anyone who now wears the Muslim burqa or niqab faces a fine of 150 Euros. It works like this: a woman wearing a veil outside her home is not arrested on sight, but every citizen who passes her on the street has the right to ask her to uncover her face; should the woman in question refuse the request, the “concerned citizen” is advised to call the police, who will then issue the fine.

Photo: Abderrahmane Dahmane, former diversity adviser of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, holds UMP political party cards during a news conference in front of the Grande Mosque of Paris March 29, 2011. Dahmane has called on Muslims to wear a green star to protest against the debate about secularism and Islam proposed by the UMP party. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

On the surface, and for good reason, this seems like nothing more than a vile instance of legislated racism. The same country that brought to the world the essential democratic concepts of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” has succumbed, it seems, to a form of Islamophobia that mirrors the self-same intolerance it has for centuries been trying to suppress. As Viv Groskop wrote in the Guardian yesterday: “If the French were not so cowardly – and were being transparent about what they are doing – they would actually outlaw the burqa and the niqab by name, instead of coyly banning ‘the covering of the face’. Presumably, it’s now against the law in France to attend a fancy dress party dressed as Zorro or Catwoman. Because if there’s one rule for one set of people who cover their face, that same rule should surely apply to anyone whose face is not immediately visible. Non?”

Oui, absolutely. Except it’s a bit more complicated than that. In a review of America Alone published in 2007, Christopher Hitchens had the following to say about the book’s pivotal message: “Steyn believes that demography is destiny, and he makes an immensely convincing case. He stations himself at the intersection of two curves. The downward one is the population of developed Europe and Japan, which has slipped or is slipping below what demographers call ‘replacement,’ rapidly producing a situation where the old will far outnumber the young. The upward curve, or curves, represent the much higher birthrate in the Islamic world and among Muslim immigrants to Western societies.”

Then there’s the situation in France itself, where opinion is divided over what exactly constitutes a free society. In a secularist country, states the pro-banning camp, citizens should be entitled to see one another’s faces. There are laws that uphold the covering of the genitals, laws that legislate against public indecency, so why is it unreasonable to expect that French culture and tradition – which supports the showing of the face – applies to all French citizens? France, this line of reasoning holds, is not a fundamentalist country; people who choose to live there should abide by its rules.   

Watch Burqa Ban: Muslim full-face cover now crime in France (RT)

Still, what appears to complicate matters may not be so complicated after all. Hitchens, in the same review where he praises Steyn for those persuasive insights into the demography question, upbraids the Canadian for his over-determinism. Islam is not a homogenous religion, he notes; there is often more conflict between Algerian, Somali and Iranian communities in a European host country than there is between “Muslims” and the indigenous population of that country itself. Furthermore, Hitchens avers, many of Europe’s so-called “multi-cultural authorities” treat the most militant voices amongst Muslim communities as the de facto voices of the entire community – thereby alienating the moderates, who are almost always in the majority.

In this last instance, who can argue that Sarkozy, in his fierce defense of French-style secularism against the “unstoppable” encroachments of Islam, is not simply being politically expedient? As countless commentators have observed, the French leader’s new law is essentially a political maneuver to appease France’s resurgent Right and improve his standing in the polls before the 2012 elections. Evidence of this can be found in many places, but perhaps none more compelling than the fact that fewer than 2,000 women are thought to wear the burqa in France at any one time. France’s population, for the record, is slightly north of 62 million; how these few women constitute a threat to public safety (as per the words of Jean-Francois Cope, the leader of Sarkozy’s party) is anyone’s guess.

The final word on the subject should once again be given to Hitchens, who said something profound about Europe’s dithering heads-of-state a full two years before Sarkozy had even begun his campaign to ban the burqa: “Islamist threat itself may be crude, but this is an intricate cultural and political challenge that will absorb all of our energies for the rest of our lives: we are all responsible for doing our utmost as citizens as well as for demanding more imagination from our leaders.” DM

Read more:

  • “Liberté, égalité, fraternité – unless, of course, you would like to wear a burqa,” in the Guardian;
  • “Facing the Islamist menace” – Christopher Hitchens reviews Mark Steyn’s America Alone in City Journal, winter 2007;
  • “French full veil ban goes into force,” in Reuters.

Photo: Kenza Drider, a French Muslim of North African descent, wearing a niqab, reads a newspaper during her travel by train from Avignon to Paris April 11, 2011. France’s ban on full face veils, a first in Europe, went into force today, exposing anyone who wears the Muslim niqab or burqa in public to fines of 150 euros ($216) and lessons in French citizenship. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier.


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