France’s burqa ban came into effect today (or I should say “burqa” ban, as I am quite sure that the burqa, stricto sensu, has never been worn in France; ever, not even once, except for maybe at a costume party). The better term is the niqab, i.e. the full face veil (as in the photo above). The law is not formally directed against the niqab, or Islamic face veil; it is called the “law forbidding the covering of the face in public space,” though this is of course an artifice. It’s all about Muslims and Islam, as was the 2004 law on the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in public schools (i.e. the Islamic headscarf law).
When the idea of legislating on this burning question (I say this with irony) began to be debated in France two or three years ago, I was opposed to a ban. Then I decided I was for, before opposing it once again. I had two arguments for proscribing the niqab in public space, one practical (or functional), the other normative. The practical objected to persons concealing their face in public—except on festival days (Halloween, Mardi Gras, etc)—for reasons of public security (as with laws that forbid the wearing of hoods in street demonstrations, nylon stockings when going into banks, and the like). The normative focused specifically on the face veil, which (French) society finds shocking and upsetting; it offends sensibilities, in the same way as persons promenading naked in public space. This happens to be my personal sentiment as well: I hate the niqab and didn’t see why it should be tolerated in the name of “freedom” (and notably freedom of religion, which is entirely irrelevant here, as covering the face is not a prescription in Islam; and even if it were, so what? no liberty is absolute). It also seemed to me that concealing one’s face in public violated an implicit social contract involving citizenship and public space, that it undermined the republican principle of fraternity. But as a law cannot designate a specific religion or a religiously or culturally-associated garment, it would have to be based solely on the practical consideration, even though the normative one was what underpinned it.
But then I decided that a law would be a bad idea after all. The whole “burqa” debate—if a debate is what one can call it—was a diversion from far more important issues but was also responding to a non-problem. The number of niqab-wearing women in France is insignificant and if their mere presence on the street bothers laïque citizens like myself, I suppose that’s our problem, isn’t it? France is both a liberal democracy and a liberal society, after all. In this vein, Patrick Weil, who reflects on these subjects from a républicain perspective, wrote an op-ed for Le Monde last fall warning that the burqa law risked being invalidated by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, whose rulings France is bound by treaty to respect. Finally, the whole burqa so-called debate so manifestly pointed the finger at the entire 4 million-odd Muslim population of France, despite the protestations of those leading the charge (Sarkozy and the UMP). The Muslims of France were being demagogically stigmatized for the umpteenth time, so I decided no, stop! enough is enough.
As it happens, those who will be charged with enforcing the law—the police—are vehemently opposed to it. The radio news programs this morning were full of interviews and sound bites from policemen who dreaded having to deal with niqab-wearing women, particularly in the banlieues. All said that the law was unenforceable and that, as a result, they would likely not try to enforce it themselves. When the 2004 headscarf law—which I opposed—was passed, I predicted that it would be met with resistance. I was wrong. Most of the teenage headscarf-wearing girls took the thing off when entering the school grounds and those who refused opted for correspondence courses at home (or went to Catholic schools). As we’re now dealing with adults—and who are religious zealots to boot—this one may be different. On verra.