Sarkozy’s attack on the burka leaves French left reeling
A proposed ban on the all-enveloping Islamic veil is another vote-winner for Nicolas Sarkozy. How can a divided left tackle the issue?
They said that a short-assed, half-Hungarian Frenchman with Jewish roots who openly admired America would never become the President of France. Then they said his Presidency would prove disastrous and his popularity would soon plummet.
But in the Euro elections earlier this month, Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party trounced the Socialist opposition, becoming the first French ruling party to come out top in European parliament elections since 1979.
The secret of Sarkozy's success is that he knows how to spot a vote winner. While the left sought to focus on the underlying causes of the riots which plagued Paris in the autumn of 2005, Sarkozy, as Minister of the Interior, simply sent in the riot police and denounced the rioters as racaille or 'rabble'.
The burka is not mentioned in the Koran, but is merely traditional dress in Pakistan
Faced with the impact of the global recession, he ditched his flirtation with Anglo-Saxon capitalism and adopted more traditional dirigiste Gaullist policies - in the process completely wrong-footing the left.
Now it seems he's played another trump card by announcing on Monday the establishment of a commission to consider banning the wearing in public of the burka - the garment worn by some Muslim women which covers the entire body, including the face.
His argument for doing so is not just that the burka represents an assault on French secularism, but that it is degrading to women. By championing the rights of women, Sarkozy is able to pose as the defender of the founding principles of the Republic. He also gains kudos for dealing with a hyper-sensitive political issue head-on. And here's the really clever part: he manages at the same time to expose divisions on the left.
Consider these opposing views. Andre Gerin, the Communist MP who tabled the Parliamentary motion last week calling for the establishment of a commission, and who is to lead the inquiry, has likened burkas to "mobile prisons". But Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party, says: "If a law bans the burka, these women will still have it but will remain at home; they will no longer be seen."
The fact is that the left - not just in France, but in Europe generally - is in a dilemma over the issues raised by large-scale Islamic immigration to the continent. For some leftists, civil liberties, a strong belief in multiculturalism and a determination to fight the rising tide of Islamophobia come first. For others, defending Enlightenment values and the rights of women are paramount.
While in Britain a 2006 opinion poll showed 77 per cent to be against a ban on the veil, in Republican France, officially and proudly secular, there are undoubtedly more votes to be had in taking a tougher stance. Wearing the burka in state schools has already been banned, as the result of a 2004 law which prohibits students from wearing any ostensible religious symbols.
While the French Council for the Muslim Religion is against a general ban, the head of the Paris Grand Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, supports such a move, saying that Islam in France must be an "open Islam".
There is, in fact, a compelling Islamic case for a ban, on the grounds that wearing a burka has nothing to do with religious belief (it is not mentioned in the Koran, but is merely traditional dress in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This could - and should - provide the French left's get-out clause. It gives them the chance to adopt a position consistent both with their opposition to Islamophobia and their belief in progressive values, instead of rushing to defend an oppressive and degrading practice which surely has no place in a modern European state (Gordon Brown please note).
If not, they will be handing Sarkozy, their wily and unashamedly populist bete noir, yet another strategic victory. ·
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