On Monday, Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French president since Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to address the Parliament, thanks to recent reforms that scrapped a 19th-century law meant to protect the independence of the legislature. Given the occasion, it was rather odd that Sarkozy's strongest words were reserved for denouncing a garment that hardly any women in France wear. The burqa, he said, "is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women." It is, he added, "not welcome in France." Headscarves have been banned in French schools since 2004. Now Sarkozy wants to go much further, banning burqas, loose, full-body veils that cover women entirely, as well as niqabs, or face veils, from being worn anywhere in public.
This was partly a rebuke to Obama, who outraged the French with parts of his Cairo speech. When Obama said that he rejects "the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal," many people in France heard a shot at the country's republican laïcité, which demands that faith be wholly relegated to the private sphere. "There was a "great outcry and a sense of being gravely insulted," says Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of the 2007 book The Politics of the Veil. "I think you can't read Sarkozy's words as anything but a response to that."
Perhaps more important than the anger itself was the opportunity it created, giving Sarkozy a chance to reach out to the anti-immigrant French right without offending the left. The clothing of Muslim women has long been a contentious political issue in France, as well as in several other European countries. The debate about headscarves, veils and burqas is a synecdoche for larger, more fraught questions of cultural identity in the age of mass Muslim immigration. Islam is changing European life in a way that makes many Europeans unhappy, but it's hard for Europeans to talk about without seeming racist or xenophobic. The one place where Europeans do feel confident about defending the superiority of their own culture is in sexual matters. Feminism and sexual liberation become tools of nationalism.
We saw this most clearly with Pim Fortuyn, the flamboyant, anti-immigrant politician who nearly became prime minister of the Netherlands before his 2002 assassination. Fortuyn crusaded against the threat he claimed Muslim immigrants posed to the famously tolerant Dutch culture. He spoke of men suddenly being afraid to hold hands in the streets, of teachers reluctant to admit their homosexuality to immigrant students. "I have no desire," he told a reporter, "to have to go through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again."
There was something to his critique. Conservatives have long pointed out -- and liberals have long largely ignored -- that there are real contradictions between liberalism and multiculturalism. Christopher Caldwell, easily the smartest of right-leaning journalists, has a provocative new book coming out next month called Reflections On the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and The West. In it, he argues that Islam "has broken -- or require adjustments to, or rearguard defenses of -- a good many of the European customs, received ideas, and state structures with which it has come into contact."
Some of these accommodations are small -- sex-segregated hours at public swimming pools, for example, or businesses that scrap after-work drinks so as to avoid offending Muslim employees. Some are larger. In Sweden, for example, Caldwell points out that a Cabinet minister has "proposed national genital examinations of [all] small girls" in order to combat female genital mutilation without singling out African immigrants. Britain's Department of Work and Pensions has started giving some benefits to additional wives in polygamous marriages. A French judge annulled the marriage of a Muslim couple on the grounds that the woman had lied about her virginity and thus essentially mooted the contract she had made with her husband.
Anti-immigrant politicians can easily take advantage of unspoken but often seething tensions created by the clash between a secular majority and a faithful minority. The burqa becomes a symbol of a broader threat to European civilization. Right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders tried to ban the burqa in 2006, calling it "a medieval symbol, a symbol against women." (The next year, he called for a ban on the Koran, the "Islamic Mein Kampf.") Several cities in Belgium ban burqas and niqabs, and women have been fined for wearing them.
"Sarkozy's whole thing has been to capture votes from the National Front, the far-right French party," Scott says. "Anti-immigrant politics is a huge part of that. Sarkozy has taken this position all along that he is the champion of Frenchness. It plays well politically for him to find issues where he can declare himself the protector of French national identity."
A ban on burqas would, of course, be unthinkable in the American context, because our understanding of church state separation, and of free speech, is quite different than the one prevailing in France. "Here in America, the separation of church and state is about the protection of religion from the state," Scott says. "In France, the idea is to protect individuals from the claims of religion. The state can intervene on behalf of individuals when they are thought to be oppressed by some communal group."
Yet such state interventions can end up working against individual women. Last year, for example, a Moroccan woman married to a French man was denied French citizenship because she wore a burqa at her husband's request. The ruling declared her "radical practice of her religion (and) behavior in society incompatible with the essential values of the French community, notably the principle of equality between the sexes." According to the scholar Cécile Laborde, political parties, intellectuals, and journalists praised the decision almost unanimously.
Likewise, Sarkozy's prospective burqa ban has significant feminist support, including the backing of the feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises, or Neither Whores Nor Doormats, which has its roots in France's Muslim ghettos. It's worth taking the position of Ni Putes Ni Soumises seriously, since the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism has been, for them, a matter of life and death. Like the Somali-Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, their activism serves as a crucial corrective to multicultural pieties.
Ultimately, though, there's no evidence that most burqa-clad French women regard themselves as oppressed. "There are women who wear burqas who are not being forced by anyone, who think that form of modesty is appropriate for who they want to be in the world," says Scott. "It's hard to distinguish between them and those who are being forced." And so in the end, a ban putatively passed to further women's rights could instead impinge on their freedom, and take from them something they value. Even worse, it could lead to those in the most fundamentalist of households being trapped inside their homes altogether. It would be cruel to limit these women's options in the name of liberation, even if their clothes are a rebuke to the secularism that the French rightly hold sacred.