‘A Law of Liberation and Not A Ban’: Update on France and the Burqa.
Jean-François Copé (pictured left), of the conservative French political party, the UMP, has recently tabled legislation that would make wearing the burqa or niqab in public an offence punishable by a fine of 750 euro. The draft text reads: “No one may, in spaces open to the public and on public streets, wear a garment or an accessory that has the effect of hiding the face.” André Gerin, chairman of a parliamentary inquiry into the use of full face veils in France, ruled out the possibility of a total ban in November of last year. We blogged about the Gérin Commission here. It is expected to report some time this month. The New Zealand Herald translates an interview which Copé gave to Le Figaro explaining the rationale behind his proposal:
“The parliamentary resolution will help to recall the fundamental principles of respecting the rights of women as a key element of the Republic. The law will respond to the question of security… How can we imagine that a teacher can let a child go out of school and be handed over to someone whose face cannot be seen?… At a time when we are developing the means of video-protection, how can we think of people walking around with their faces covered?..Exceptions to the ban would be made for “carnival or cultural events” where people were masked, he said.
“We are totally opposed to the burqa. The burqa is a prison for women and has no place in the French Republic…But an ad hoc law would not have the anticipated effect…It is not the state’s job to judge what is the right interpretation of the scriptures… We should not make a law when it is not clear how it would be enforced…”If tomorrow the burqa is not allowed in public places, how would the police act to convince a woman to abandon her burqa? Would they force her to take it off?”
The debate between the Socialists and the UMP, then, takes as a shared premise the incompatibility of the act of wearing the burqa with French values. Their conflict turns on finding the best way to dissuade women from wearing the burqa; as M. Copé claims, “Everyone has understood that we have to take charge of things, wake up the Republic and act so that Muslims in France will practise Islam in a way that’s compatible with Republican values.”
Discussion of the religious aspect of the decision to wear the burqa has been somewhat superficial. Eoin blogged here about the use of constructs of ‘legitimate’ religious belief to undermine appeals to religious freedoms. Similar tactics are in evidence in the French context; M. Copé told Le Figaro that “[w]e spoke to religious and secular figures, who all confirmed [the burqa] was not a religious prescription. Wearing the full body veil is about extremists who want to test the republic.”
In any event, it looks like the UMP proposal is unlikely to achieve very much in the immediate future. It has received a tepid response from President Sarkozy for reasons neatly explained by Charles Bremner in the London Times. Re-stating that the burqa was ‘not welcome’ in France, and welcoming the proposal to make law to limit the situations in which it may legally be worn, Sarkozy has nevertheless preached a cautious and gradual approach to law reform around the burqa. He has said that ‘any new legislation must be able to stand up to legal challenges in court’ and has warned that ‘[w]e must be careful and not offer an opportunity to the opponents of democracy, dignity and gender equality to score a victory, which would place our society in a very difficult situation’. A set of ‘space-specific’ or tailored restrictions is far less likely to fall foul of the the Convention than a total ban.
Only 1,900 women living in France wear the burqa – the Sydney Morning Herald interviews a few of them here. The country is home to some 5 million Muslims. You can find a helpful summary of legal restrictions on Muslim women’s dress in various European countries here. In the UK, the UK Independence Party last week proposed a ban on the burqa and the niqab.