France Must Look beneath the Burqa

Article excerpt

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's call this summer to ban burqas, the full-body covering for Muslim women, has generated much heat but little light. This controversy is just the latest episode in the messier conflict over French identity and social cohesion.

By condemning burqas as a symbol of male oppression, however, Mr. Sarkozy ignored these underlying issues and may end up pushing some women further to the margins of French society.

France has taken bold steps in recent years to preserve its secular character amid a rapidly growing Muslim population. In 2004, it banned head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Last year, a court denied citizenship to a burqa- wearing Moroccan immigrant, saying that her radical religious practice was at odds with French values.

In his speech to the French parliament June 22, Sarkozy declared that the burqa is not simply a religious issue. He is right. It is a French issue, one that brings into question the very core of French identity.

By their very existence, women wearing the burqa embrace a kind of public distinctiveness at odds with the fundamental egalitarian character of French society; symbolically undermining the secularism and national unity upon which modern France rests.

Since its revolution, in 1789, France has been willing to incorporate ethnic and religious minorities into the larger society, but only so long as those minorities were prepared to keep their ethnic and religious traditions strictly within the private sphere.

Immigrants of any background are welcome to pursue their unique identities in the privacy of their own homes and places of worship, but in public everyone living within the country is emphatically considered to be French.

There is no conceptual space for the idea of dual or "hyphenated" identities (i.e., "African-American"), which are very popular in the openly multicultural United States.

In order to fit into this particularly French conception of identity, immigrants have had to adjust their own senses of identity along the lines of this public-private distinction.

These groups have had to prove themselves assimilable in various ways, including active participation within civic institutions such as the military and the public school system, as well as by the formation of a governing body to act as a liaison between the greater community and the French government.

The French Muslim community - most of whom arrived in mainland France burdened with the history of French colonization - has not always been as willing to prove themselves assimilable as other minority groups. …