Monday, June 22, 2009

Here we go again, cont'd. (Sarkozy edition)

So, in his major policy address today, French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke on the burqa a lot more forcefully than I'd expected him to. Here's the key section. (It's actually part of an interesting larger discussion of laïcité, which is itself only one element in a wide-ranging speech mainly focused on economic issues. You can link to the full text of the speech in pdf from below this summary article in Le Monde; for English-language stuff, there's a NYT article here about the burqua-related parts of the speech. The Guardian also has decent coverage, though it's headline, "Nicolas Sarkozy Says Islamic Veils Are Not Welcome in France," is bizarrely misleading -- the issue here really is the burqa specifically, not "Islamic veils.")

In the Republic, the Muslim religion must be just as respected as the other religions. The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. It's a problem of freedom and of dignity for women. It is not a religious symbol, it's a symbol of subservience, a symbol of abasement. I want to say it solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we cannot accept women imprisoned behind wire fencing, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of the dignity of women.

A moment later he added, "But I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values. We must not be afraid to defend them." All of this obviously stands in some contrast to Sarkozy's comments last week in response to Obama's Cairo speech, when he emphasized that, outside of public schools, "any girl who wants to wear the veil can do so." I suppose that it could be argued that the burqa is an entirely different issue from the veil -- and in certain ways it is. But nevertheless this whole initiative strikes me as an abrupt blowback from the perceived criticism of "the French model" by Obama.

For the moment, I'll just note my sense, as I read the news in the last couple days, that despite my sense of déjà vu (and the "Here We Go Again" post titles), this may not actually play out as a replay of the massive French debates about the veil in the public schools. Beyond the obvious fact that we're talking now about a changed political landscape from that of 1994 or 2004, with new actors, there are also other differences. For one thing, the symbolically-charged space of the public schools aren't involved. For another, this puts on the table very different legal questions now, regarding what adults wear in the street, not in spaces administered by the state. (We're also talking about what a very small number of adults wear in the streets -- I've been looking in vain for an estimate of how many women in France actually engage in full-body veiling, but everyone seems to agree that it's pretty tiny. Of course, the numbers aren't the point here. They weren't with the veil in the schools, either -- that too was a very small phenomenon in statistical terms.) Also, there seem to be skeptical voices present in the debate already that are insisting that this stuff is a distraction from the very real issues around Islam in France; to my ear, at least (and I may be forgetting -- please tell me), they sound different than anyone did 5 years ago.

And yet...the déjà vu remains. We'll see.

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