PAOLA TOTARO, Europe Correspondent
June 24, 2009
THE FRENCH President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has thrown his weight behind a ban on wearing the burqa in public – before a new parliamentary inquiry has reported on the proposal.
His controversial call, contained in a “state of the nation” style speech to the first joint sitting of both houses of parliament in 136 years, appears to have elicited widespread populist support.
However, it was immediately criticised by his political opponents, who dismissed it as an attention-grabbing strategy to deflect attention from pending reforms of the taxation and social welfare system.
Mr Sarkozy, who will announce a cabinet reshuffle today to open the second chapter of his five-year administration, has been warned that his statement risks alienating the US President, Barack Obama, who used his landmark speech in Cairo to say he did not believe the state should dictate how people dress.
Speaking in the opulent red and gold chamber of the Chateau de Versailles, Mr Sarkozy did not demand an outright ban on the burqa, arguing that decision remained an issue for parliament. However, he made his personal opposition clear, describing the custom as not “a problem of religion but a problem of the equality and dignity of the female”. While freedom of religion was paramount in France, he said, the burqa represented a symbol of the debasement and servitude of women:
The burqa is not welcome on the French Republic’s territory. It is not what the French Republic wants for the dignity of women … we must have a debate on this subject in parliament … we cannot accept in our country that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from society and all identity.”
According to French academics and observers, renewed calls for curbs on the burqa stem from the increasing use of the dress by a group of between 30,000 and 50,000 women, mostly French nationals, who have joined the Salafistes, the radical anti-Western group who preach a break with society to return to a purist form of Islam. Many, of Algerian origin, live separate lives and there is fear they are attracting primarily young, alienated women who adhere to strict, controlling regimes of prayer and lifestyle.
While left-wingers in France have expressed disquiet about this smaller group – a minority among 5 million Muslims – they also fear that the parliamentary push for a ban will only further alienate and discriminate against a population already struggling and stigmatised.
France is in the throes of a renewed debate about the burqa after a group of 60 MPs – left-wingers and right-wingers – united last month to demand a formal inquiry into the burqa, which covers the face completely, and the niqab, which covers all but the eyes.
In 2004 a debate raged for months when there was a move officially to ban the use of head scarves in schools. Mr Sarkozy told parliament the best place for the debate was the legislative chamber and that France should not be afraid of “defending its values”.
Muslim leaders, too, have reacted with caution, describing Mr Sarkozy’s statements as typical in a republic with a powerful secular spirit.