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France's burka bill - background to a bitter debate

media Women in Marseille wearing burka and niqab Reuters

France is set to become the second country in Europe to ban the burka. President Nicolas Sarkozy says that his government is defending France’s secular values and protecting women's rights. His critics see Islamophobia and political opportunism behind the move and believe it is a sign that official France still does not fully accept citizens of immigrant origin.

The draft law proposes a course of civic education and/or fines for those who wear garments that hide their faces in public. Men who are found to have forced women to adopt the garb are liable to terms in prison.

There will be exceptions. Police officers are allowed to wear hoods, motorcyclists are allowed to wear helmets with visors and carnival-goers are allowed to wear masks. There is really no doubt that the targets of the bill are the burka and the niqab worn by some Muslim women, which Sarkozy, in a key speech in 2009, declared to be unwelcome in France.

The left divided by the burka and hijab

In the 1990s the affaire du foulard – the expulsion of girls wearing hijab from school - proved especially divisive for the left. The burka/niqab debate opens up the same divisions. 

The French left has a long record of fighting racism and religious intolerance, dating back to the Dreyfus affair when a Jewish officer was framed on spying charges and deported to a penal colony.

But it also sees itself as the guardian of the heritage of the French revolution and its “republican values”, including secularism. Indeed, many on the left regard themselves as holding the torch for rationalism and continuing the tradition of anti-clericalism in the face of all religions. Add to that the left’s declared support for women’s rights and intense ideological soul-searching – if not confusion - is guaranteed.

If the response of Michel Rocard’s government to the affaire du foulard was confused and confusing, the previously monolithic Communist Party saw its members taking contradictory positions. Some of its local representatives openly sympathised with expulsions in the name of laïcité, while others condemned them. Even the country’s several Trotskyist groups found themselves on opposing sides.

The 21st-century version is remarkably similar.

Communist Party member André Gerin heads the parliamentary commission charged with drawing up a law, which his party publicly opposes.

The Socialists supported a resolution in parliament calling for “any means necessary” to protect women who have “suffered violence and pressure and notably been forced to wear an all-covering veil against their will”, while opposing the proposed law as stigmatising Muslims.

If the question of the burka recalls the reaction to the hijab, it also has echoes of attitudes to France’s supposed “civilising mission” as a colonial power.

Here again, the larger left-wing parties were sometimes accused of being inconsistent in their opposition to French colonialism, sometimes seeming to believe that it was exporting the legacy of the French revolution to parts of Asia and Africa.

 Sarkozy told a special conference of parliamentarians that the burka and niqab suppress women’s identities and turn them into “prisoners behind a screen”.

France, which follows Belgium in moving towards a ban, is estimated to have the largest Muslim population in Europe. Official statistics about ethnicity or religious affiliation are not compiled, since such categorisation is deemed to be a breach of the principle of the equality of all citizens. But the number of people from Muslim backgrounds is put at between three and six per cent of the 63 million population, with about 40,000 converts.

French Muslims are concentrated in urban areas, often in working-class banlieues, and come from families who came to France from former colonies during the economic boom years after World War II.

So mutual relations with the French establishment are coloured by the legacy of colonialism, questions of class and, as in the rest of Europe and north America, the tensions between already established populations and immigrants.

Adding to this combination came a new assertiveness of Muslim identity towards the end of the 20th century. One of the French state’s first clashes with its expression came over a controversy over female dress – not over the burka or the niqab but over the hijab, a scarf which hides the hair but not the face.

In 1989 a newspaper article reported that teachers had forbidden a girl to attend a school in the eastern town of Epinal because she was wearing “the traditional scarf”. The teachers argued that it was a breach of France’s secular principles, which, they said, meant that signs of religion must not be allowed in the state-run education system.

Epinal’s example was soon followed by a headmaster in the the Paris suburb of Creil. Principal Ernest Chévière ordered three girls not to come to school unless they took off their scarves, asking parents in a letter to tell their children to “respect the secular character of our establishment”.

For good measure, Chévière added that “about 20” Jewish children didn’t attend school on Saturdays or Friday evenings during winter and that “the teachers can no longer accept this”.

The case hit the headlines in France and was also covered by international news outlets.

The Socialist-aligned anti-racist group SOS-Racisme intervened on the girls’ behalf and the Communist Party’s paper L’Humanité detected “a desire to force Islam into a ghetto”.

The reaction of Michel Rocard’s Socialist government, then serving under right-wing President Jacques Chirac, was ambiguous. Education Minister Lionel Jospin declared that secularism in schools should mean tolerance but interpreted that as meaning that religious symbols should not be “ostentatiously” displayed, while adding that “school exists to welcome children, not to expel them”.

Several expulsions from schools in other parts of the country followed, along with a public debate on immigration and religion in the media. It saw the Front National’s Bruno Mégret declare ethnic and religious coexistence impossible and Socialist Julien Dray call for a Ministry of Integration – a  wish which he was to forget but which was to be made reality by the Sarkozy government.

Acting on a request from Jospin, France’s highest legal authority, the Conseil d’Etat, ruled that wearing the veil was not incompatible with secularism and that expulsions were only justified if there was a danger to public order or the educational process.

A circular from the ministry told schools to settle the matter on a case-by-case basis.

But that was not the end of the matter.

Five years later, under a right-wing government, Jospin’s successor at the Education Ministry, François Bayrou, sent out a circular distinguishing between “discreet” and “ostentatious” signs of religion, implying that the latter were not welcome in public buildings.

Between 1994 and 2003, about 100 girls were expelled from French schools. With regular media coverage of the explusions and sometimes furious debate over perceived conflict between Islamic and French identities, headmasters complained that the state was ducking its responsibility to give clear instruction on the matter.

In 2003, President Jacques Chirac ordered a parliamentary commission to draw up a law to ban the wearing of explicitly religious symbols in schools.

The resulting law, passed in 2004, took up Bayrou’s distinction between noticeable and discreet religious symbols, forbidding Islamic headscarves, Jewish kippas and large crosses but not small crosses, religious medals and stars of David.

Women's rights in France - given or taken?

“We are an old nation assembled around a certain idea of personal dignity, in particular the dignity of women …,” Sarkozy told the cabinet when it discussed the burka ban. But for many feminists women’s rights have been hard won, often in the face of determined establishment opposition.  

The right to vote - although the revolutionary Paris commune in 1871 gave women full political rights, they were abolished as soon as the rebellion was repressed. Not even the left-wing Popular Front of the 1930s gave women the right to vote. French women as a whole did not win this key democratic right until liberation from German occupation in 1944. That was after most Scandinavian countries, the Soviet Union, the UK, Burma and the Philippines.

Women in parliament – 41.6 per cent of candidates in the 2007 general election were women, up from 9.6 per cent in 1945; 20 per cent of elected National Assembly members are women, compared to 48.8 per cent in Rwanda and 47.3 per cent in Sweden.

Women in government – Thirteen out of the 40 members of Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet are women, compared to eight out of 16 ministers in Spain and four out of 24 in the new British cabinet.
Equality at work – In 2006 the average woman’s salary was 27 per cent lower than that of a man. A law against sexual harassement at work was introduced in 1991.

Domestic violence – A 1999 study found that more than 1.5 million women in France had been subjected to verbal, physical or sexual violence, while one in 20 women said they had suffered physical assault, ranging from blows to attempted murder. Most violence took place within the family and domestic violence affects all classes. The first women’s refuge was set up in Clichy, near Paris, in 1975. The appeals court recognised rape within marriage in 1990. The government has named the fight against violence against women the “great national cause of 2010”.

Birth control – Contraception and abortion were banned in a law passed in 1920. A law authorising the distribution of contraceptives, proposed by right-wing MP Lucien Neuworth, was passed in principle in 1967. But, thanks to resistance by the Catholic church, it only came into force in 1972. Simone Veil’s law legalising abortion was passed in 1975 after a long campaign by feminists and their supporters.

Parental leave and child care – Men and women can take up to three years unpaid parental leave. France has one of the most generous child care systems in the world. Parents can send their children to publicly or privately run nurseries from the age of three months. Most crèches are open 11 hours a day and close for only one month in the summer.
Who wears the trousers? – Women wearing trousers in France are still technically breaking the law, although few of them are aware of the fact. A 19th-century law stipulating that any woman “wishing to dress as a man” must obtain permission from the local préfecture has never been repealed, although later exceptions were made for women holding a horse’s reins or a bicycyle’s handelbars. When right-wing MP Jean-Yves Hugon suggested that the law be scrapped in 2003, he was told that it was not worth the bother.


The debate on the burka and the niqab has raised many of the same issues as the hijab controversy, while placing more emphasis on women's rights and less on secularism. But it was not sparked by any specific event such as  the Epinal and Creil expulsions.

What incidents there have been – the charging of a woman for driving while dressed in a niqab, participants at a public meeting on the question coming to blows – took place long after the proposal was first floated.

On an international level the debate on the West’s relations with Islam is, of course, more intense than in 1989. The 2001 attacks on the US, the wars in Iraq and Afganistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have led to talk of a “clash of civilisations” and to far-right parties redirecting their anti-immigrant rhetoric almost exclusively towards those of Muslim origin.

France has not been the only country to take exception to “ostentatious” expressions of Islamic faith. Ahead of Belgium’s burka law, a referendum in Switzerland voted to ban the building of minarets.

In a speech shortly after his election in 2007, Sarkozy echoed the “clash of civilisations” rhetoric. The country’s most important challenge, he told France’s diplomatic corps, was avoiding a “confrontation” between Islam and the West. If “extremist groups” who rejected “modernity” and “diversity” were to have their way, he argued, the 21st century would be worse than the 20th, marked as that was by “a no-holds-barred confrontation between ideologies”.

Sarkozy’s strategy in relation to Islam in France has not been dissimilar to his approach to rival political parties – bringing some leaders into the corridors of power while loudly condemning those people and practices he considers beyond the pale.

Thus, secularism notwithstanding, Sarkozy had already initiated the creation of a French Council of the Muslim Faith when he was Interior Minister in 2002. That was combined with tough-talking on crime and riots in the banlieues, a discourse which was often interpreted as stigmatising the immigrant-origin youth of poorer neighbourhoods.

Once in power, he established the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Development, whose very title proved controversial because of the association of the terms “immigration” and “national identity”.

But there were no immediate moves to ban all-covering garments. Indeed, there has been no apparent epidemic of burka-wearing in France. A 2009 intelligence service report found less than 400 women wore either the burka or niqab in all of France, while a later report by an Interior Ministry department came up with an estimate of 2,000.

Sarkozy’s critics claim that he and his ministers have pumped up the rhetoric on the burka as their position in the opinion polls has slumped. Indeed, the president’s first speech after a major setback in March’s regional election promised action on the question.

But one of the most fervent advocates of action has been Communist Party MP André Gerin, a former mayor of the Lyon suburb of Vénissieux, who now heads the parliamentary commission charged with drafting the law.

Most of Gerin’s comrades disagree with him and the opposition Socialists say a law is impractical, while opposing the garment itself. And mainstream Muslim leaders, including those who oppose the burka, judge the legislation dangerous, risking the “stigmatisation” of their religion over a practice they describe as "ultra-minority".

The country’s highest legal authority has also warned that it might be legally impossible
to impose and enforce such a ban.

But as a populist measure the ban may work. Opinion polls show 57 per cent of the population backing it. So the government looks set to press ahead.

As soon as he was elected, Sarkozy declared his solidarity with oppressed women in foreign countries. The president was largely raised by his mother and his government has several women in important positions. Who can tell how sincere his feminist tendencies are?

The record of the French establishment on women's rights may give a hint as to the sincerity of the ruling party, although the majority of MPs doubtless consider emancipation of career women, at least, an essential part of modernity.

The planned law poses other questions apart from its motivation.

How essential is wearing cover to Islam? Can religion evolve in response to its environment? How far can liberation be legislated? Can social and religious attitudes be changed by the law? How can a court know whether a woman wears cover voluntarily or not? And, perhaps above all, is plurality an essential part of modernity? 

We may find out some of the answers in 2011, when it is planned to come into effect.

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