New Info Campaign Tells French Citizens How To Be Burqa Vigilantes

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It’s not exactly “wear a burqa, go to jail”, but the French state has begun a sloganeering information campaign aimed at dissuading a crime that has fueled growing public concern. As part of that effort, the government is reminding Muslim women who wear the full-body veil that they’ll soon be legally prohibited of being seen in public in that state–while also instructing citizens how to deal with an obscuring niqab or over-protective hijab when they come across one. And it’s just what French society needed to transform its reputation as a scrum of stropy, selfish, mutually-recriminating individualists into one of a synchronized mass of do-gooding Gallants rushing to save burqa-wearing Goofuses among them from their errant ways. (The Highlights reference will no doubt date me, but a Eric Cartman/Kyle Broflovski contrast just doesn’t work here.

(See a TIME video of a French woman who plans to defy the law.)

Awaiting the April 11 application of the law voted in October prohibiting the burqa from being worn in public, the government today began distribution of 100,000 handbills, and 400,000 pamphlets reminding people of the interdiction against “covering up one’s the face in the public space”. Leaving nothing to chance, a website will also begin operation March 4 with badgering reminders that “Hiding your face undermines the minimal demands of social life”, or the patriotism-rousing “The Republic lives with its face uncovered”. Not quite the “Yes, we can” or “I have a dream” capable of mobilizing millions, but quite possibly the kind of tag lines that buttinsky French secularist zealots feel will allow them to flash civic yellow cards at any Muslim women they deem guilty of excessive textile envelopment.

Scarf-enshrouded tourists vulnerable to facial chilliness and hardcore hoodie fans disinclined to leave the shadows of their sweatshirt-caves should not start scrambling to cancel that Paris leg in upcoming European trips, however. Though the law nominally prohibits anyone one obscuring their face (and thus identity) in any public street, garden, business, transport, or administration, it’s clear who the 500,000 printed tutorials are really gunning for: the estimated 350 to 1,900 Muslim women thought to wear burqas in France. And because it remains statistically feasible (however unlikely) that one of the 64 million individuals living in France may actually happen across one of these rare clothing outlaws in a train station or movie line that the newly-circulated documents instruct people on how react when “confronted” in what the literature rather confusedly describes as “face-to-face situations with people whose faces are hidden”.

“Remind them of the applicable rules, and invite them to respect the law by uncovering themselves, or leaving the venue,” a flier recommends all would-be pedants. Should that prove futile, it continues, crusading citizens are instructed to call the police so they may then lay the minimum $207 fine on burqa reprobates—who may also be sentenced to attend “citizenship courses” where ideological instruction on proper attire are dispensed. All that’s missing are re-education camps and blue plastic bags (though use of those latter items would probably also break the law about head-coverings).

A word of caution to future visitors considering playful vigilante mischief on the logic “when in France, be over-bearing like the French”, however. To avoid violating civil liberty statutes—or, ironically, the very 1905 law establishing secularity’s separation of religion and state—legislators were forced to twist the law in ways that make it even more illogical in detail than general objective. For example, you can righteously bellow a legalistic cease-and-desist warning at women caught wearing a burqa in the street, but you must clam up if she happens to be there in a car (which is deemed a private space under the law. Someone should pass that detail on to Hugh Grant).

By contrast, feel free to barge into any mosque or prayer hall that have let niqab-toting women enter, since those venues are somehow deemed public domain under the law. Don’t try to figure it out: it’s about Islam in France. Making sense isn’t even part of the equation.