Sarkozy's legislation is only the latest move in a centuries-old grapple between the French state and organised religionby Ruth Harris / July 14, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…