Joan Wallach Scott, the author of The Politics of the Veil, on the real motivation behind the move to ban the niqaab in France:
The national assembly’s action came on July 13, as the country prepared to celebrate the birth of republican democracy in the revolution of 1789. Banning the burqa on the eve of the Fête Nationale provided a clear affirmation of true Frenchness.
It followed a year in which President Sarkozy included a minister of immigration and national identity in his cabinet. The title of the new post conveyed the message that if national identity were in trouble immigrants were the source. The president and his minister called for a countrywide conversation on the meanings of national identity. There were to be contests and town-hall meetings to articulate what it meant to be truly French. When that effort fizzled, they came up with more draconian measures. Sarkozy proposed, this month, to take away the citizenship of foreign-born French citizens if they were convicted of crimes such as threatening the life of a police officer. Children born in France to foreign parents (once presumed to automatically qualify for citizenship) would be denied citizenship if there were any evidence of juvenile delinquency.
This month, too, began the expulsion of the Roma, said to be illegally camped throughout the country and responsible for all manner of crimes. Despite an outcry from those who denounced the expulsions as echoes of Vichy (the government that collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s), these activities have made “security” a prime focus for politicians and public opinion pollsters. Whether it will deliver another term to Sarkozy in 2012 remains to be seen.
The immediate effect is to conjure a fantasy spectre in which foreigners endanger France and are made to take the blame for all its economic, social and political problems.
The people advocating bans on veils on supposed women’s rights grounds are, she says, never normally supportive of efforts to improve the lot of women; some of them have opposed laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment. It’s all about forcing people of foreign descent to adopt white cultural norms, along with white feminists thinking that they have the right to dictate what liberty means for all women.
There is also the myth (which Joan Wallach Scott mentions but does not refute) that 1789 was somehow the “birth of republican democracy”. It wasn’t. After that came the Reign of Terror, Napoleon and a period of restored monarchy; republicanism did not become stable in France until the Third Republic.
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