France’s National Assembly struck a supposed blow for women’s rights this week by presuming to lay down what form of female attire is lawfully acceptable.
This contradictory exercise gained an overwhelming majority of 335 votes to one for a Bill, proposed by Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Curie and backed by the conservative governing parties, that would prohibit “la dissimulation du visage” – covering the face.
If the Bill, which has still to be approved by the Senate, is carried into law, women who appear in public with their face covered would be fined 150 euros or be sent to citizenship classes.
Their husbands or fathers could also face a year in jail and a 30,000 euro fine if found guilty of obliging them to wear the veil, and the fine could double in the case of an under-age girl.
There is no mention of Islam or Muslims in the Bill, but no-one harbours any doubt that it is targeted at the full-face veil – niqab – and the all-enveloping burqa worn by a tiny minority of France’s Muslim women.
Nor should anyone fail to see that this measure, in common with many being pushed across Europe, is designed to enforce conformism by Muslims.
Alliot-Curie asserted that veils “call into question the idea of integration, which is founded on acceptance of the values of our society.”
At the very least, this begs the question: “What are those values?”
Do they include tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for other cultural traditions, or do they boil down to a declaration that minorities must curb their differentness to match the template of what the majority regards as acceptable?
The latter proposition is fraught with difficulty since there is no single model acceptable to all French citizens.
The French revolution that gave the world “liberty, equality, fraternity” also contributed the political divisions of left and right from who sat where in the national assembly.
Since 1789 the left, whatever its differences, evokes “republican” values such as secularism, democracy and equal rights, while the right espouses clericalism, monarchy, authoritarianism and a tendency to collaborate with invaders to safeguard its privileges.
Republican secularism arose from working people’s battles against the reactionary Catholic church which worked hand in glove with the aristocracy to suppress social progress.
This was expressed most vividly through the imposition of a swingeing tax on the surviving population of Paris, following the post-Commune slaughter of working people, as a penance for daring to rise up against God.
The penance took the form of the construction of the Sacre Coeur church on the heights of Montmartre overlooking the city as an injunction to Parisians not to repeat their revolutionary blasphemy.
These anti-clerical roots run deep, but secularists have to realise that the monster of Catholic church domination in the 18th-century has no threatening parallel in the presence of 5 million Muslims in present-day France.
The official position of the left opposition in the National Assembly – the Socialist Party, Communist Party and Greens – was to abstain on Alliot-Curie’s Bill, although some, including one Communist Andre Gerin, voted in favour.
Gerin had previously headed a parliamentary commission to study the possibility of banning the public wearing of the burqa or niqab and his report provided the basis for the government Bill.
French CP spokesman Roland Muzeau articulated his party’s position as “firmly condemning” the burqa, while denouncing the government Bill as a “political move that threatens national unity.”
He also pointed out that regional elections will take place in a few weeks, accusing the right of “growing some weeds in its electoral garden by waving the red rag of the burqa, which is worn by fewer than 2,000 women in France.”
But the collective failure of the parliamentary left to take a firm principled stance on the right of women to decide for themselves what they wear will serve as an encouragement for the government and the racist far-right Front National.
This is not an isolated instance of Islamophobia in French politics. There was an earlier instance of Muslim girls being ordered to abandon the hijab – a scarf covering their hair – on pain of being banned from studying in state schools.
Again this was carried through on the basis of supposed “republican values” to defend the secular basis of state education.
Ironically, this has driven many Muslim families to send their girls to private schools run by Catholic organisations, serving only to erect a further barrier between working class communities.
France’s decision to emulate Belgium in banning face veils, the hostility of the Dutch Freedom Party to Islam, likening the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the Swiss ban on building minarets and the ongoing campaigns in Belgium and Spain to criminalise the veil are creating an atmosphere of apprehension among Muslims.
None of us has to admire any form of dress justified by religious belief, but we should be capable of seeing the reality when a minority is being singled out for special negative treatment.
Above all, the labour movement must reject all attempts to hijack and misuse our republican principles of secularism and gender equality to fuel an anti-Muslim witch-hunt.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star
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This post was written by John Haylett