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Pussyfooting Sarko may pay price

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to France and the French

On April 11 France began to enforce laws against women covering their faces for reasons of religious observance. Muslim females may still wear a headscarf: but anything that conceals a female’s identity is now illegal. Thus is extended to the whole female population a law that, for the last seven years, applied just to those who worked in the public sector.

This determination by the state to tell people what they may or may not wear may seem culturally surprising to the Anglo-Saxon mind: but it is the logical progression of a French legal tradition that dates from 1905, when the law on “laicité” was passed, which made France a fully secular state.

It is not so much secularism as women’s equality and their rights that has been adduced by the French government today as its reasons for passing this new law.

When it announced the measure last May, the Government said it was acting to “ensure the dignity of the person and equality between the sexes”. It said that the coercion of women by men to conceal their faces was “a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil”.

The penalties range from the mild to the fierce, depending upon the nature of the offence. A €150 fine or community service, and citizenship classes, can be imposed on a woman for wearing a niqab or burqa. A man who forces a woman to do it faces a year in prison and a €30,000 fine. A man who forces a minor to do it could end up with two years in jail and a €60,000 fine.

The French constitutional council has approved the new law, saying it does not prevent the exercise of freedom of religion in places of worship.

The law has enormous support in France. The Pew Global Attitudes Test, run by an American pollster, found that 82% of French approved of the ban: Amnesty International has, though, asked the government not to impose the ban as it violated human rights laws. Feminists have come out in strong agreement. Most Muslims – who constitute about 14% of the population in France – have registered opposition to the law, calling it racist.

The Government has not denied that there are security implications of people walking around with their identities concealed. A number of other countries are thinking of following France’s example, though an attempt to introduce a Private Member’s Bill in the British House of Commons last year came to nothing.

However, many in France consider Nicolas Sarkozy’s enthusiasm to affirm his country’s commitment to secularism to be distinctly opportunist. The burqa and niqab ban, though highly symbolic, is not the end of what Sarko and the UMP intend to do to be secular.

As The Connexion has reported, the party has put forward no fewer than 26 proposals to maintain a “balance” between the secular state that France has, for more than a century, been designed to be, and religion.

There are two realities behind these proposals, neither of which the UMP would be keen to own up to. The first is the growth of radical Islam, and the unease this has caused among many ordinary French people, including among some Muslims; the second is the growth of support for the Front National under its new management, and as a result of the perception that the mainstream parties (the UMP included) have not taken the impact of Islam on French culture as seriously as many citizens
would have wished.

So the UMP proposes a formal reaffirmation of the law of 1905, a simplification of all other laws and regulations on secularism, and a law setting out the nature of religious freedom in France and the rules affecting its exercise in public.

Religious belief will no longer be an excuse to break laws or demand special treatment, and schools and state departments must teach pupils and their staff the rules governing a secular state.

The proposals also include an element of compulsion on French citizens in areas where, for religious reasons, they might seek at the moment to exercise a choice – such as a woman refusing to see a male doctor, or parents determined to withdraw the girl child from PE lessons.

To “balance” this there are 13 propositions to ensure religious freedom, whether it be by allowing mairies to develop specific areas of cemeteries for specific faiths, or having “guides” and special courses for people in the private and public sectors to ensure equal treatment for all faiths in a secular society.

The last of those things suggests an alarming bureaucracy would have to be created to draw up rules, educate people about them, implement them and police them.

It suggests what a nightmare the UMP’s intentions about the enforcement of a secular state would translate into if enacted. Demonstrations took place in France when the latest bans were introduced, and some have indicated their resolve to test the law.

The more of an industry has to be created to enforce laicité, the more potential there is to undermine it. When and if that comes to be appreciated by the French electorate at large, the refusal of the FN to pussyfoot around these issues and simply to enforce an idea of Frenchness on a like-it-or-lump-it basis may seem to some to be more honest and attractive.

After all, it is rather what de Gaulle did, and it is hard to imagine him purveying his certain idea of France through a pile of rules that include whom one can or cannot choose as one’s doctor.

Secularisation may be a 106-year old tradition in France; however, as Sarko may be about to find, it serves no purpose at all to have it hijacked in a desperate attempt to ward off defeat in a presidential election.

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