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French identity debate: beyond burqas

As lawmakers considered a burqa ban, France debated identity, immigration and integration.

Women wearing niqabs walk past a clothing shop in Marseille, France, on Dec. 24, 2009. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

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.