United States Criticizes France over Religious Tolerance

Woman wearing the veil walking near Paris. Photo: Flickr.com/jfgornet

Woman wearing the veil walking near Paris.
Photo: Flickr.com/jfgornet

On Monday July 30 the United States State Department released a report on international religious freedom stating that France and Belgium had recently instituted laws about dress that “adversely affected Muslims.” France was included in the more general statement made by the report that there has been a recent rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe.

This report brings attention back to the law passed in France last year that forbids women from covering their faces in public, affecting French Muslims who wear the niqab for religious reasons. The law was adopted in April 2011 and can only be enforced by police, who must refer the woman wearing the niqab to a judge. Often confused with the burqa, the niqab is the form of dress most common in France and is black with a slit for the eyes. Only a judge can institute the fine of up to €150 and/or a citizenship course.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, there were 299 recorded offenses in the first year after the law’s institution, but fines are rarely handed out. The first two fines did not occur until September 2011. Gilles Devers, the lawyer of one of the two women fined at that time, said that the niqab law “contravenes European human rights legislation on personal liberties and freedom of religion.”

The proponents of the law said they were instituting an act of tolerance. Former President Sarkozy said this was not “a religious problem,” but one “of the liberty and dignity of women,” a view that was seconded by an article that appeared in The Telegraph shortly after the law passed. The author William Langley called the new law “a statement in support of liberalism against darkness.”

Despite these claims of tolerance, the results of this law have been widespread acts of intolerance. There has been a large increase in violence against women wearing the full veil. They have trouble finding work or entering public places safely. One assertion was that the ban was necessary in order to allow for better integration of Muslim women into society, but in reality it has resulted in their inability to do so.

France has a strong history of secularism after a law passed in 1905 forbidding the state from favoring or recognizing one religion over another. Following the criticisms from Washington on Monday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs said that France “is a democracy that guarantees fundamental public freedoms, including freedom of consciousness, religion, and beliefs.”

The problem is two-fold. The State Department was critical of the anti-niqab law, but more importantly of the reasons behind it that existed even before the law was passed.  Whether one supports women who choose to wear the full veil, and whether one supports the government’s authority to pass laws on the issue are two separate debates.

Rachid Nekkaz is a French businessman and property developer who founded the association Don’t Touch my Constitution in 2010, which stages protests and has set up funds to pay the fines given to women for wearing the niqab. Nekkaz is personally opposed to the niqab, but calls the law banning it in public spaces “a gross attack on personal freedoms and the French constitution.”

There is a significant rise of Islamophobia in France, and there are also many who are morally against the implications of the full veil and the way it can limit women’s rights. Most of the women who have been stopped in the past year and a half, however, wear the full veil out of a personal choice and were not doing so either because of an overbearing husband or because their religion mandated it.

This issue runs a lot deeper than simply overturning the anti-niqab law. There needs to be a significant reconsideration of the relationship between government and religion, and an even more significant focus on how to deal with the lack of integration of different groups into French society.

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  1. […] never left the French politics. Additionally, one cannot deny that the concerns voiced by the United States State Department on July 30 hit the French where it hurts: the laws repeatedly focused on the Muslim community. It is a real […]

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