The machinery of French legislative authority is going into motion to pass a law that will ban the full veil in public, with a vote scheduled for July 13.
Put forward by President Sarkozy, the ban was originally opposed by the Socialist Party. But the Socialists, who represent the main opposition of Sarkozy’s government, have signaled acquiescence, arguing only for narrowing the scope of the ban.
The popular support for a burqa ban does not surprise me. France has a more than 100-year-old tradition of a rigorously secularized public culture. A 1905 law strictly separated church and state, and achieving this separation involved a great struggle over the role of religious symbols in public. For example, clerics with academic appointments can not wear ecclesiastical clothing (clerical collars) while teaching. The goal of Laïcité, as the secularizing project is called, has been to insulate public culture from the overbearing influence of the Catholic Church.
To a large extent, the proposed burqa ban follows in the French tradition of enforcing a secular vision of public culture, with anxiety shifting away from Catholicism and toward the political and cultural power of Islam. Sarkozy has framed the ban in terms of the feminist issues, but the popularity of the ban among French voters stems from a desire to deal with Muslims as fellow citizens and not as a religious community that differentiates itself from the rest of French society.
That may be unrealistic. Religious convictions find their way into the public realm one way or another, and as Richard John Neuhaus argued again and again it’s best to grapple with the public significance of faith directly rather then trying to drive it underground.
But the impulse behind the ban is not silly. Our constitutional principles of separation of church and state and free exercise of religion remain unstable, as a reading of recent decades of Supreme Courts decisions on the First Amendment shows. The same holds for the French tradition, which tilts more strongly in the direction of separation. The proposed ban, which may end up being voided by French courts on constitutional grounds, is a small, largely symbolic part of a larger struggle to define the role for Islam in French public life.