The burqa has forcefully returned to the centre of the French public debate. On April 2nd in Nantes, a 31-year-old woman wearing the niqab while she drove her car was fined by the police for violating traffic laws. According to the policeman who stopped her, her attire did not permit her to ‘drive comfortably’. The fact per se did not appear to be extremely serious. The Nantes affair, however, implicitly introduced the concept that wearing the integral veil in public places in France is effectively a crime (punishable with a 22 euro fine) and fuelled the French government to follow the example set by Belgium, which on April 29th became the first western country to totally forbid the full veil in all public places.
In March, the French Council of State alao expressed an opinion on a draft law forbidding the full veil in public places in France, emphasising “doubts concerning the unconstitutionality” of such a law, since it would go against the principle of freedom of worship and freedom of expression. A total ban to practice one’s own religion frightens people in this country of state secularism and above all such an eventuality is not contemplated by the French constitution. This is the heart of the opinion expressed by the French Council of State. The Minister of the Interior, Brice Hortefeux, has thrown oil on the fire by immediately afterwards threatening to withdraw the fined woman’s husband’s French citizenship (since he appears to be a polygamist and receives state benefits for his wives). The French Islamic community reacted instantly.
In the course of a conference on the subject of “coexistence,” held in the Arrhama mosque in Nantes, the Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan accused the Minister of the Interior of “betraying the values of France.” “Polygamy is illegal,” he said to an audience of about one thousand people, “and it is the law that establishes this. But since when can a minister request that citizenship be withdrawn for this reason?” Ramadan judges the minister’s decision as ‘emotional and irrational’ because he has turned a story about a 22 Euro fine into a ‘national controversy.’ Ramadan has often spoken out against the full veil for Muslim women, but is also against having a law in France that forbids them from wearing it in public. Le Monde too agreed with Ramadan judging the Nantes affair concerning the burqa as ‘a trap.’
In a very harsh editorial, Le Monde emphasised that the Nantes affair conceals the French government’s will to ignore the opinion of the Council of State and implement urgent procedures to have the law approved. The newspaper accused the minister of ‘betraying constitutional values.’ Hortefeux defended himself and from the columns of the same daily newspaper he first said that the controversies linked to Ramadan (on the subject of stoning and his indirect links with the Muslim Brotherhood) involved repudiating what is ‘politically correct’, an attitude that according to the minister could lead to ignoring dozens of women who continue to remain in ‘walking prisons.’ The French government has, however, been clever in moving the emphasis from religious freedom to the dignity of women. The draft law in fact was welcomed positively by the association for the defence of women’s right “Ni putes, Ni soumises” (neither prostitutes nor submissive), that through its President Silhem Habchi spoke of a “victory for women.” SOS Racisme instead said that a law banning the full veil in public places goes against the values of the French constitution. The European Convention for Human Rights instead spoke of a “populist decision.”
The socialist party has taken advantage of this opportunity to distance itself from the government and present a draft law on the full veil that takes into account the suggestions of the Council of State. In the meantime Amnesty International sees the decision taken by Belgium as a “dangerous precedent” since it allegedly violates the freedom of expression and religion of all those women who wear the niqab or the burqa due to their own religious persuasions and not because they are forced to. One thing is certain, Prime Minister François Fillon has announced that a law forbidding the burqa in public will be debated in the course of an extraordinary session of the National Assembly at the beginning of July. On May 19th a decision will be made on whether the law will be debated following emergency procedures or not. According to reports from Le Figaro, alleged to have access to the draft law, wearing the burqa could result in a year in prison and a 15,000 euro fine for those who use violence, threats or abuse of power to impose the ‘integral veil’ on a woman. Women found in public places wearing the burqa receive lighter punishment because they are often perceived as ‘victims.’ The crime will however be added to Chapter 5 of the Penal Code concerning attacks on the dignity of a person.
Translated by Francesca Simmons