Oy. On Friday a group of 65 French legislators called for the creation of a parliamentary committee to study, "in the name of secularism,"* the phenomenon of women wearing the burqa in France. Luc Chatel, the spokesperson for Sarkozy's administration, told France 2 tv that the government would consider the possibility of a ban on the wearing of the burqa in public. Other members of the government (Fadela Amara, Rama Yade, both of Muslim background) are receptive to the idea of such a law; the Minister for Immigration Eric Besson, however, has spoken against it, saying "It is necessary to fight against the spread of the burqa, but it must be done through education, through pedagogy, through dialogue." (Sarkozy himself has declined to say anything till Monday; we'll update once he does.)
Yes, according to Le Monde, it looks like this is at least somewhat a response to the fallout from Obama's Cairo speech comments that we posted on last week: "For some people," the paper says, "the parliamentary offensive also appears to be a resopnse to the M. Sarkozy's approbation for Barack Obama's comments about freedom to wear the veil for women living in Western countries, on the condition that it is a matter of 'free choice.'"
This is a giant can of worms for France, where for years now underlying struggles about Islam, tolerance, diversity, extremism, and so on have been playing out symbolically through fights about Muslim women's bodies and clothing. As Arthur Goldhammer observes here, in a great post about these developments, the burqa (and other forms of religious dress or veiling) can evoke visceral reactions of "horror" or upset that simply don't arise in the same way regarding other, less visible forms of religious observance. The large Muslim minority in France creates challenges to secular ideals that are extremely complex, and although personally I disagree with current French policy, as I wrote last week, I think that the French are justified in not being thrilled with offhanded comments about it from Americans. So (until I've had some time to really study what's being said on all sides) I won't get into my position on these issues, but will keep posting on what's happening in France as it develops.
* "laïcité," which does not have a great English equivalent -- "secularism" gets kind of close, but laïcité is more about the **absence** of state involvement in religion, and vice versa. Here's a nice little historical guide from the BBC. Good subject for another post.