France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 16, 2010

Lifting the veil on the burka law

So the French Senate has voted, 276-1, to essentially outlaw the burka in public places, cracking down on the biggest threat to the Republic and Republican values, 2,000 women who cover themselves because of their religious beliefs. Let’s cut to the chase here: This is not about preserving Republican values, or protecting women of Arab origin from their radical Islamist spouses. This is about the French discomfort — be they Gaulists, Socialists, or Communists — with anything different. When I moved to Paris in 2001, people having their morning coffee used to look at me funny as I ran by on my morning jog — and I was barely covered at all in my shorts and sleeveless tee-shirt. One of the only two times I got asked for my papers was when I decided to have a picnic on the top of some stairs over a street and overlooking a tres Parisian park on the rue Lafayette (I am here!). No doubt a busy-body neighbor saw this unusual sight and called the police. I repeat: I was having a picnic. (Okay, the picnic included homemade sangria, but as the police didn’t ask to inspect that, I assume that was not the issue.) The issue here is not so much the police — indeed, they were incredibly polite — but the *mefiance* of the typical French person, one of whom had obviously called them because she saw something she considered out of the ordinary.

French television news no doubt featured all last week saturation coverage of the Koran burning that never happened, affirming American contempt for Muslims. But at the end of the day, it never happened, and was more about American stuntsmanship than intolerance. The French, on the other hand, overwhelmingly passed a law which clearly impinges on the religious freedom of some of France’s Muslim population. And here’s the key difference between us: For all our faults, Americans, starting with the president, realize that we have a problem with tolerance, *and we are working on it.* The French, by contrast, by a vast majority, not only have a problem with tolerance of difference, they don’t admit it. They hide it under the facade of protecting their holy trinity of values, liberty, fraternity, and equality, when in fact laws like that outlawing the burka defile all three.

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December 8, 2008

Unveiled: The Rights of Men, except for Muslim girls

Like the U.S. media, the French counterpart has the tendency to overdo it on anniversaries, applying blanket coverage that often has the reverse of the desired effect by actually numbing us to the importance of the organism being feted. This month it’s been the 60th of the convention of the universal rights of men. Presumably this applies to women too, but not, apparently, to the two women who brought suit in the European Court of the Rights of Men in 1999 when, still teenagers of 13 and 14, respectively, they were expelled from their middle school in Flers, in the Orne department, for refusing to take off their head scarves as required by a new French law ostensively prohibiting sporting ‘ostentatious’ symbols of religion but which in fact was seen by many as targeting ostentatious symbols of Islamism (not to be confused with ‘Islam’).  The young women seemed to think that Article 9 of the aforementioned convention, which defends the liberty of thought, conscience, and religion, might apply to their case. (Hey, just had a thought: If the young ladies sought recourse to such an august European institution, do they still count as communitarianists — i.e. segregationists? Just wondering.) Well, surprise surprise, the Strasbourg-based court told them last week that they had no case. The story was buried in the media — my local paper Sud-Ouest ran two paragraphs in Friday’s editions — as were the young ladies’ rights. Because here’s the deal: Acknowledging that, if I recall correctly the debate at the time the law was passed, even French Muslim authorities are not unanimous on whether the wearing of the head scarf is a dictate of the religion or a choice, the fact is that for these young women, and countless others, covering their heads constitutes part of how they practice their religion. (Is it imposed by men in their circles? It seems there should be other ways to handle that scenario.) So as long as they don’t proselytize in school, who is the State to proscribe how they practice their faith?

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