Confronting one of the most hotly debated social issues in France, President Sarkozy gave a withering critique of burquas as a symbol of women’s “enslavement” – and he wants to stamp them out. Apparently there is no room in France for the garment that some Muslim women wear to cloak their bodies and faces. Addressing the French Parliament, Mr Sarkozy said: “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” He emphasised, ”The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.” To enthusiastic applause, he said, “I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.”
But why such “intolerance” on the part of the French?
The separation of Church and State is jealously guarded in France, embodying that cherished French principle of secularism. Born out of the French Revolution it has long been a tenant of the French way of life. Voltaire, one of the leaders of eighteenth century progressive thought, argued that religion was divisive, primitive and intolerant. While the Republic believes you have the right to worship as you want in private, it believes that as a French citizen you owe your allegiance first to the French nation rather than to God.
Five years ago,the wearing of ouvert signs of faith was banned in State institutions – being incompatible with French values. Last year, a Moroccan women was refused French citizenship inspite of speaking fluent French and having a French husband. Why? Because of her ‘radical practice’ of Islam. She insisted on wearing a burqua which is incompatible with French values.
However, in his recent speech, Sarkozy was at pains to stress that Islam must be respected like all other faiths. Interestingly, an extensive survey of Muslims in Europe recently found that France is the country most at ease with its Muslim population. Whilst 81% of Muslims in the UK felt themselves to be Muslim first and British second, over 50% of French Muslims viewed themselves as French first and Muslim second.
As I always emphasis – there’s no right or wrong – just difference. Cultural difference. C’est la vie!