French identity debate: beyond burqas

PARIS, France — A panel of French lawmakers has recommended passing a law to forbid women from wearing head-to-toe Islamic dress in some public spaces such as government buildings, hospitals, outside of schools and public transportation. Those who failed to obey the law could be penalized by a denial of service. 

No surprise, the decision has sparked an outcry. But what some readers might be surprised to hear is that the loudest voices hoped the panel would recommend a stronger ban of the burqa in all public places to send an emphatic message, instead of what some lawmakers called a "half-law." The term "burqa" has become an all-encompassing term to signify an Islamic style of dress where the eyes are the only visible feature.

The opposition Socialist Party has maintained that while it, too, is against women wearing burqas in France, it is even more against a law that "serves as a red flag to stigmatise and divide," said Martine Aubry, the party leader. Some Socialists boycotted Tuesday's resolution, which included provisions for protecting the women subject to the ban.

Since French President Nicolas Sarkozy first said in June that the burqa was "not welcome in France" and declared his support for a ban, the country has seen a sometimes cacophonous debate over not just Muslim dress but rather a jumble of issues related to French national identity, such as immigration, integration and religion.

The debate first focused on the burqa with hearings called before the National Assembly three days after Sarkorzy’s June address to parliamentarians.

But in November, Immigration Minister Eric Besson launched a debate on the identity question writ large, with a central question posed at local town-hall style meetings and online on a dedicated website: “What does it mean to be French?”

The website quickly became a victim of its own success. More than 59,000 people logged in on the first day. An electronic traffic jam prompted officials to clarify that comments left on the site were not being censored, just taking longer than usual to appear. The message, meant to reassure a skeptical public that the government did not have ulterior motives, reinforced the cynical reactions the initiative generated.

In announcing the government-sponsored debate, Besson said it was consistent with Sarkozy’s campaign promise to promote national identity. Nonetheless, some called it a political ploy to curry favor with voters ahead of regional elections this spring and with those who may be disappointed with Sarkozy’s flat performance midway through his presidential term. Others saw it as a strategy to deflect attention from domestic problems like the 450,000 people added to the unemployment rolls in 2009, or political scandals involving his son and his culture minister.

In his first prime-time television appearance of the year Monday night, Sarkozy defended the debate calling it “very dignified,” necessary and a mark of a country that speaks to its citizens.

"France is not a race, not ethnicity,” Sarkozy said. “It is a community of different people who together build a nation with values, principles, rights and duties.”

But not everyone has appreciated Sarkozy's effort. Jean-Francois Bayart, a researcher at Sciences Po, the political sciences school in Paris, told Le Monde newspaper last year “there was no such thing as French identity.” The reluctance to discuss the tensions raised by immigration meant the country was living in a state of “schizophrenia.”

“This is not innocent because we know that large parts of the national economy, such as construction, catering, the textiles industry, are based on the exploitation of clandestine immigrants,” Bayart said in an interview with Le Monde. “This feeling of fear was created; there is nothing objective about it. France has settled into this lie or at least into the denial of reality.”

In France, where the state does not collect data on race in accordance with its founding principle “liberty, equality, brotherhood,” the vigorous public debate over the integration of immigrants and minorities is a relatively new experience.

One example: French or African?

On the opening day of the online debate, the writer Marie Ndiaye won France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for her book titled, “Three Strong Women.” In the media blitz, much was made of her African ancestry even though she was born in France, raised solely by a French mother and only met her Senegalese father when she first traveled to Africa in her 20s.

Incessant references to Ndiaye’s African background “make no sense” to the 42-year-old author now based in Berlin, who said in interviews that despite being raised 100 percent French, she found it ironic that she can seem foreign in her own country.

Her brother, Pap Ndiaye, a historian and sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Science, told the Christian Science Monitor: “For several years, immigrants and the children of immigrants have been targeted as threats to the French national identity. This may be a way to suggest they are not French or are not as French as they should be.”

The tensions raised have brought a diversity of voices to the debate. Pap Ndiaye is now part of a group calling for Besson’s ouster and another group calling for a “multicultural and post-racial France” has also emerged.

Speaking before the National Assembly about the debate late last year, Francois Fillon, the French prime minister, drew robust applause when he told fellow politicians that frank discussion was not something to fear.

How to codify identity?

In addition to sponsoring the public debate, the government has made concrete proposals, such as the burqa ban, to reinforce what it means to be French. Another proposal, for example, would require school children to be given the opportunity to since the France national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” at least once a year. That proposal died down after much criticism.

But it is unclear whether the enactment of such proposals would help the French come to a consensus on what their nationality means.

At a Democrats Abroad event in Paris, Frederique Kammerer said she felt very French when surrounded by Americans, and out of place though she couldn’t put her finger on why. Sure, “being with friends, drinking wine, eating well and enjoying life,” were aspects of being French, but the identity question tugged at her deeply anti-religious sentiments. She was “extremely shocked,” she said, by people who came to France but did not respect its secular values.

“It is out of the question that any religion comes here to give me lessons about life,” said the 44-year-old insurance company trainer.

While there was no shortage of definitions of what it was to be French, one post on the government’s website that was widely circulated online made an attempt to delineate what it was not: “Mosques and tam-tams, Ramadan and lucky charms, minarets and boubous, sharia and African witchcraft, Arabic or Wolof, harissa and cassava, the palm tree and the baobab are by no means contemptible; only they are not part of French civilization.”

The national identity debate will culminate in February with the presentation of a summary by the immigration minister. As for the burqa ban, some hope a law will be passed this year, but lawmakers will first have to work out many details, such as how it would be enforced.