It’s embarrassing for me to remember that there was a time when I had great hopes for Nicholas Sarkozy. But with today’s announcement of a forthcoming bill that will ban Islamic veils in all public spaces (i.e., not just in locations where public services are being provided), his presidency has officiellement sauté le requin.
It is hard to stomach the utter dishonesty of it all. As Jacob Levy argued last year when this was first mooted, the government’s gambit has been to frame this as a matter of women’s liberty, pure and simple, while any suggestion that it is a matter of religious freedom is dismissed out of hand. While clearly false, it enables the officials to portray what is clearly a reactionary policy aimed at preserving some atavistic notion of “French identity” as somehow serving the fundamental values of the republic. It also avoids the unpleasantness of having to concede that there might be competing principles at work, which might have to be balanced or — as one might say — reasonably accommodated.
Even if the stability and identity of the republic were at issue, how big a problem is it? Last year, Le Monde reported that under 400 women in France wear the full veil; I’ve heard other figures that put it as high as 2000. And about half of those are converts, many of whom are probably kids who thirty years ago would have put safety pins in their noses if they were living in Camden Town, but have today found a better way of sticking a thumb in the eye of the establishment in France.
And all of this doesn’t even begin to deal with the utter impracticality of the proposal. This is my favourite comment so far: “Je ne sais pas comment on va faire avec les Saoudiennes qui viennent acheter sur les Champs-Elysées, par exemple”.