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
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. …