France’s Burqa Ban Comes Into Force With Much Noise, Little Impact

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It sparked the protest, denunciation, and even arrests many had feared, yet as France’s legal ban of the burqa took effect April 11, it had many viewing the interdiction of facial coverings in public as one of the strangest and least enforceable laws in the long and cluttered French history of trying to legislate every aspect of life into submission. And, like clockwork, on the very morning it came into force, the new prohibition displayed all its inherent weirdness when a group of mostly Muslim women decided to stage their protest outside the Catholic Notre Dame cathedral, and were promptly confronted by police forces representing France’s strictly secular state. But even then, police officials say, the three veiled women who were arrested Monday morning weren’t busted because the burqas or niqabs they were wearing violated the new law, but because they were demonstrating against its application without a necessary permit.

Score that a fittingly auspicious and dysfunctional first day for the new French law that has had people scratching their heads the world over for months now. But despite its risibly high profile launch, chances are good that few people will hear much more about the ban in the months to come—especially with police officers and their representatives warning there’s little enthusiasm to apply what’s largely views as an unenforceable prohibition.The events of Monday in many ways fleshed out the suspect motives behind the face-covering ban from the outset. It was plucked up in 2009 as a politically convenient manner of battling what public opinion viewed as the spreading influence of Islam in French society. Banning the burqa and niqab, backers claimed, was necessary to protect the dignity and humanity of women that French society holds dear—too bad for the rights of women who wear such identity-hiding garments freely out of religious conviction. That secularity-based stance sounded heroic until official intelligence studies estimated fewer than 370 women within France’s 56 million population wears full-body and-face coverings—a figure that has mysteriously swelled to an equally insignificant 2,000 burqa-clad women as debate over the looming prohibition grew. That resistance rose as Muslims noted how the push to legally ban the burqa was only the most recent of several politically inspired initiatives that tended to cast Islam as a backward, repressive religion, and raise questions about its compatibility with Western society. Scapegoat seeking politicians, critics argued, continually set upon burqa-like exceptions to suggest they were the blossoming rule that must be kept in check.

The controversy such arguments provoked caused many leftist parliamentarians to back away from the move towards a formal prohibition of the burqa, especially as experts stepped up to say the measure violated French secularism that was supposedly being defended by it. Meanwhile, leaders of all major religions in France joined the voices denouncing legislative interdiction of full veils as intolerant. As media at home and around the world turned attention to that row, France’s legal vetting agency warned legislators about the constitutional problems—and action from European Union courts—that banning garments worn only by some Muslim women would involve on civil liberties grounds. As a result, text authors changed the draft law to prohibit people from wearing any facial covering that obscures their identity on security grounds. Its real intent thereby masked, the law designed to ban the wearing of burqas and niqabs was passed last September as a nominally, and came into force Monday.

Yet the events surrounding the protests outside Notre Dame this morning speak volumes about what motivated the law—and where it’s probably heading. Only a dozen actual demonstrators turned up for the protest (few were reportedly veiled) that drew hundreds of reporters and cops. The media and security response (read “hype”) to such a miniscule event was the reflection of the political objective behind the ban itself: generate lots of attention and debate by taking on something that—statistically and socially speaking—is minor at most, and thereby give the illusion of taking an important stand for the collective good. Major smoke; virtually no fire.

As noted earlier, the three protesting women arrested in that circus Monday morning were faulted for not having a permit rather than violating the new face-covering law (even though two were in a burqa and niqab respectively). And that’s probably the rule for application—or lack thereof—in the future. Guidelines tell police to request burqa-wearing women in public venues to undergo a private facial verification of their identity against their papers somewhere out of the way, and only advise bringing covering offender into police stations for booking if they refuse. Even those initial checks seem unlikely, however, with most union officials representing police officers saying cops aren’t eager to play the heavy to burqa-wearing women they happen across in public venues, and will often just look the other way.

Indeed, on Monday morning, three beat cops in central Paris were asked how they’d respond to such situations while on duty. Though two declined to respond—both with playful comments indicating they had more important things to do—a third motioned around the crowded streets devoid of any full-body and –face covering garments and pointedly asked “enforce it against whom?” When asked whether he’d apply the law against women he’d eventually come across in infringement, he shook his head, pulled a wry face, and uttered a word roughly similar to the English term for describing a certain byproduct of bulls. “If I’ve no other cats to skin, maybe,” he said, moving off into the crowd. “But I’ve already got more than I can deal with, and this is just a distraction”. It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to the question, or the burqa law behind it.