Britain’s politicians take fright at the idea – but Sarkozy’s brave step is both popular and right, says William Langley.
Despite some high-profile protests, France’s banning of the burka is enormously popular with the public. Unfortunately, as in Britain, almost anything politicians do that the voters approve of tends to be denounced as populisme – a particularly dread charge among the over-earnest French political class – and instead of enjoying the deserved benefits, President Nicolas Sarkozy has found himself on the defensive.
Sarko’s modest measure (the burka is forbidden only in public places, the fines are piffling and the enforcement procedures incomprehensible) has led to much talk of sledgehammers and nuts, warnings of an apocalyptic Muslim backlash and claims that the Republican tradition of liberté is being compromised in a seedy ploy to combat the resurgence of the hard-Right Front National under its new leader Marine Le Pen.
Almost anything, in fact, than an acknowledgement that the public overwhelmingly sees the ban as right for France, beneficial to its Muslim communities and justified – if on no other grounds – as a statement in support of liberalism against darkness. Approval runs right across the spectrum, with Fadela Amara, the Algerian-born former housing minister in Sarkozy’s government, calling the burka “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it”, and André Gerin, the Communist MP who headed the commission investigating the grounds for a ban, describing it as “the tip of an iceberg of oppression”.
So what do we get in Britain? Theresa May, the Home Secretary, rules out a ban because “it would be out of keeping with our nation’s longstanding record of tolerance”, while the Leftist commentariat continues – with apparent seriousness – to suggest that the face veil is a “lifestyle choice” and essentially no different from a balaclavas worn by middle-class types on the ski slopes of Courcheval. I suspect this thinking is going to have to change.
During the years I lived in Paris it became clear that what people in polite society alluded to as the “Muslim issue” was, actually, a fiendishly complex knot of social, religious and historical threads all bundled up as one. On the surface – and there was no need to doubt the genuineness of this – most French Muslims declared themselves to be patriotic, and resoundingly supportive of the constitutional separation of church and state.
It wasn’t surprising. The post-war Muslim presence in France had been built around the harkis who had lived and worked under French administrations in north Africa, often serving in the French forces and seeing France as their true home across the Med. Like the West Indians who came to Britain in the 1950s, they were astonished on arrival to discover that the natives were far less respectful of the mother country and its institutions than they were.
But this generation’s influence was starting to fade, and in the unlovely satellite suburbs where many Muslim immigrants settled, or – to be more accurate – were dumped, a new kind of identity began to emerge. Today, virtually cut off from mainstream society, the populations of many of these places have become hostages to virulent strains of radicalism. Women who refuse to wear the hijab, and, increasingly, the burka, are intimidated and brutalised by gangs whose ideas about female emancipation are on an exact par with those of the Taliban.
This, as Mme Amara painstakingly tries to explain, is the problem with all those charming liberal pieties about allowing women to choose how they wish to dress. Large numbers of the women who wear the burka – whether in France, Britain or anywhere else – don’t have a choice.
So France has taken a stand. The first country in Europe to do so, and, I would suggest, by far the best equipped for the task. Secularism is taken seriously in French society – a legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism that was further enshrined in the landmark 1905 law that prohibits the state from recognising, funding or favouring any religion. Schools are strictly non-faith, and all public bodies must be free of religious influence. As recently as 2007, a public outcry resulted from the disclosure that a senior government minister had sought informal advice from a Catholic priest on matters of policy.
Perhaps the big question is why the burka hasn’t been banned earlier. There’s some truth in the charge that M Sarkozy needs a boost, especially as Mme Le Pen, daughter of the FN’s founder Jean-Marie, has proved such a hit with the voters.
Sarko can’t compete with the far-Right’s populist rhetoric. What he has been able do is to recognise that populism isn’t always wrong. And, in banning the burka, to demonstrate that France has a more sophisticated concept of tolerance than Britain.