On April 11, a law came into force in France banning the wearing of either the burqa or niqab in public places, which some argued was deliberately stigmatizing against French Muslims. Those found in violation of the ban incur fines of €150 or mandatory lessons in French citizenship, with men who actively force women to wear the head covering also facing years in prison. Since coming into effect, the ban has had fairly limited media coverage in France and despite some protesters who initially defied the ban, it has not been highly enforced. Women affected often choose to stay at home rather than go out, fueling the case that the mainstream French political establishment enacted this politically expedient legislation to shore up their grassroots base against the far right and win votes.
France has always had issues in publicly discussing immigration policy, with mainstream politicians reluctant to discuss this thorny issue. This has left the stage wide open for far right-wing groups such as the Front National (FN) to use immigration as a vote-winner and play on fears of a potential Muslim hegemony in France. Surveys consistently show that the ruling centre-right party, the UMP, has 32% of its members partial to FN policy. Therefore, UMP leadership decided to act tough on immigration-integration by pushing for a banning of both Bburqa and niqab in order to win back votes
But numerous questions have been raised and continue to be asked of the validity of a government’s right to regulate the dress of its citizens. The French case demonstrates that, under pressure, European governments might try to win votes by legislating against a section of the population who pertain to wear an item of clothing on religious-cultural grounds.
Equally, surveys corroborating that the ban is unnecessary show that out of a French Muslim population of 3.5 million, only 367 actively wear the burqa or niqab. Consequently, this is a ban that affects only 0.015% of French Muslims. These statistics show that most Muslims in France do not wear either the burqa or niqab, and thus the ban was unnecessary because the majority of Muslims posed no threat to French secular values.
Consequently, it seems that the banning of the burqa is an expedient way to gain votes from the far right whilst tackling the thorny issue of immigration and integration in France. Yet, it also alienated many Muslims who perceived the state as directly targeting them, a feeling echoed by Pierre Moscovici, who said: "We're talking about maximum 2,000 women, meaning this law risks reigniting conflicts between religions and communities."
Five months on from the date of enforcement, it seems that this ban was politically expedient, giving the UMP much needed immigration credentials to tackle the FN in upcoming elections, win votes, and protect their own base against the far right. Thus, as a law it is unnecessary and biased towards a portion of the French population already heavily affected by unemployment, poverty, and despondency about their place in French society.
The fact that this ban, so political in nature for a supposedly liberal European country, continues to be enforced against what 367 to 2,000 French women choose to wear is deeply divisive for France and Europe.
Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons