Why France is banning the veil

Sarkozy's legislation is only the latest move in a centuries-old grapple between the French state and organised religion
July 14, 2010
Picture by FotoRita via flickr
France’s national assembly has voted by 366 to one in favour of a ban on face coverings in public places. The move was widely anticipated, as the government has made no secret of the fact that it is designed to target the Islamic veil. President Sarkozy has described the veil as a “sign of enslavement and debasement" and claims it is the ultimate symbol of Islam’s oppression of women.

Opponents argue the move could contravene the French constitution and might be challenged by the European court of human rights. Recent changes in French law make it possible for individual citizens to challenge laws' constitutional validity, so the government has taken the unusual step of pre-emptively submitting the ban for approval by their constitutional council. Its passage is by no means guaranteed—the European court of human rights ruled in February that “religious attire in public space cannot be banned except if [people] were accompanied by excessive proselytism, felt as real pressure on passers-by.” Yet whatever the fate of the proposed law, the widespread political support it has won in France is revealing.

France is, of course, not the only European country where Islamic assimilation attracts controversy. Belgium is expected to ban the veil, while the Swiss have voted against minarets. But France’s take on the veil issue has always been shaped by special concerns about the encroachment of religion on the state, especially in education and culture. In 2004, obvious religious symbols were banned in French state schools; allegedly to defend secularism, although that measure was widely (and correctly) interpreted as being aimed at the country’s large Islamic minority. France’s socialists have accused Sarkozy of pandering to anti-immigrant feeling, while also trying to lure right-wing voters from the National Front. Sarkozy insisted that the debate is “noble,” an attempt to reconsider and reaffirm values that were eternally French.

French republican ideology has long enshrined an almost militant form of secularism known as laïcité, which consigns faith to the realms of private conscience and worship. Its proponents are sensitive to outside criticism, especially from Americans: when Barack Obama used a 2009 speech in Cairo to defended the right of Islamic women to wear headscarves, the French saw his remarks as an indirect attack on their political culture.

In contrast, many French are appalled at the political role churches play in America. Such religious “interference” is viewed with intense suspicion in a county where the church has often been seen as an enemy of liberty, the home of obscurantism, and the source of Machiavellian plots.

For all that, what is fascinating about the current French concerns about the veil is how closely they echo the line taken by the anti-clerical campaigns of the Enlightenment and 19th century, which also revolved around women. La Religieuse, Diderot’s novel published in 1796, told of a young innocent, Suzanne, who is pressed into taking the veil as a nun, then subjected to the sexual and moral exploitation of her superiors. The veil symbolised enclosure, darkness, and the unbridled power that victimises the weak.

Such “forced claustration” became a cause célèbre throughout the 19th century, as historian Caroline Ford reveals in her 2005 book, Divided Houses. Lawyers denounced the loss of women’s “civil personality” when they entered convents, and fought for their right to get back the dowries paid to religious congregations if they decided to leave. Nuns’ habits were denounced as oppressive in much the same way that today’s critics condemn the burqa.

Throughout the century such issues were part of a wider trend, in which the spectre of religious manipulation stalked the anti-clerical imagination. The Jesuits were thought to be plotting to restore the Monarchy. Priests, more generally, were thought to interpose themselves between husband and wife, in order to turn women away from the Enlightenment and emancipation offered by republicanism. Mainstream feminists even opposed giving women the vote on the grounds that the Church would use its influence to direct female voting from the confessional. The resonances with the contemporary debate are obvious.

But one of the fundamental questions about the veil is whether or not women wear it of their own free will. If so, then it is an expression of their freedom of choice; if not, then it may indeed be a symbol of their oppression. There has been little attempt in France to find out which is right, or how to unravel the complex pressures and beliefs that lead to a decision to be covered.

Many who argue against the ban do so because they believe the measure would increase female subjugation to militant Islam, by keeping the wearers of the burqa at home. For its proponents, as with the beliefs about veils and Jesuits in the 19th century, a ban is a way of combating radical clerics who work behind the scenes to undermine French society.

The fears of today are built on those of the past; the Catholic enemy now superseded by the Islamic menace. There remains something extraordinary in a campaign that expends so much heat on so few people: only around 2,000 women wear the veil in a population of approximately 8m Muslims. Nonetheless, if the ban goes ahead, it risks turning such women into lawbreakers, even though it is hard to see how they constitute much danger to “public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” These, surely, are the only safe grounds upon which such legislation should be contemplated.