While boasting about human rights, the president has got the French state into a muddle about what it is trying to achieve
By: Agnès Poirier
President Sarkozy must be having nightmares every night. Little did he know last June that his idea of banning the niqab in France, “the country of human rights”, would so lamentably backfire. Today, he is struggling to put an end to l’affaire. And it is of little satisfaction to him that Belgium should be the first country to legislate against the full veil.
A veiled Muslim woman walks near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
Sarkozy is torn between his party and public opinion. His UMP party does not want to lose face on the issue, and wishes to pass some sort of legislation in order to make a grand demonstration of the country’s secular culture, while public opinion is tired by what they see as yet another Sarkozyist gimmick, one that has proved noxious for France’s national cohesion.
The latest niqab-related news story is showing just that: President Sarkozy has opened Pandora’s box, and lost the key. French media reported last week how a woman was fined €22 by the gendarmerie for driving in a full veil that offered “too little visibility”. The interior minister revealed to the press that this woman was one of four concubines of a radical Muslim halal butcher from Nantes. Among them, they have 12 children. An investigation into polygamy and alleged child benefits fraud was started: if proved, the butcher could be deprived of his French nationality. But why should such an incident be given such prominent media coverage? For François Hollande, former head of the Socialist party, “the tactic is clear. It’s about getting back a hold of a part of the electorate which has in part retreated into abstention or voting for the far right.”
It has become so embarrassing that Nicolas Sarkozy asked his prime minister, François Fillon, to deal with it and come up with a new bill – and quick, before the summer. However, the presidents of the national assembly and of the senate have asked the prime minister for more time: “This is a sensitive issue. We need time to come up with a solid text that everyone will agree on.”
According to the Causeur’ commentator David Desgouilles, Sarkozy could have got away with the niqab ban had he not invoked, in a delusion of grandeur, “the country of human rights”. He could have simply used article 34 of the French constitution, which distinguishes law from regulations: the former must go through parliament while the latter can be decided by the executive power, ie, the government and the president.
In effect, Desgouilles writes, the niqab could have been banned the same way wearing just a swimming suit in seaside resorts’ city centre during the summer is banned. The wearing of the niqab could simply be forbidden in the name of community cohesion – or as the French say, le vivre ensemble.
We are touching the nuances of law and regulations, but also of political philosophy, which reveals different traditions between France and the US or the UK. In France, there is hardly any mention of what people in the US or UK call “civil liberties”. The French invoke human rights. Of course the two notions overlap, but in a country like France, the state often barges into what is considered elsewhere as fundamental civil rights that must remain outside the state’s realm.
If the niqab ban is passed as law, the question then arises of how you make it effective. Do you also forbid visiting tourists from Saudi Arabia from wearing it? A number of French MPs want to limit the ban to public administrations, but then a law already exists which bans all conspicuous religious symbols from public places such as hospitals, courts and schools. Or do you simply resort to a fine? Even the National Front is against a law: “it should simply be a police regulation.”
The ban of the niqab: a fine legal mess.