The problem with the burqa ban

Submitted by Matthew on 19 August, 2010 - 3:00 Author: Yves Coleman

Much has been said about the proposed law on banning the burqa in France. Partly prepared by a Communist Party MP, André Gérin, who chaired a multi-party parliamentary commission for several months, it will be voted in September.

These are some of the explanations: President Sarkozy is dramatically losing ground in the polls; he wants to keep seducing the voters of the National Front; the French economy has serious problems so the UMP (the main governmental party) is looking for a diversion; the government wants to justify French military intervention in Afghanistan; salafists1 are trying to infiltrate the working-class districts populated by a majority of Muslim immigrants and French Muslim citizens with North African or African descent; this new law is the continuation of the vicious debate about national identity launched by the UMP; among the 2,000 women who supposedly wear the burqa in France, one can count many young, newly-converted, French women who behave like the members of a sect and don’t represent the “average Muslim” woman, etc. etc.

Probably all of these explanations have a bit of truth, but none of them explains the disarray of the left and far-left in the face of this issue, presented by the French government as a “feminist” law.

If we consider the two main parties of the reformist left, we can observe a division in their ranks. The Communist Party deputies officially will abstain, but at least André Gérin will vote for it. The Socialist Party wanted to present a different law to unite all parties, but it will finally abstain, even if several “socialist” MPs have already announced they may vote for the UMP law.

As regards the three main far-left groups, the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Fight), after having apparently taken a position less critical towards the law, seems to have slightly changed its line and to now denounce the government’s manoeuvre while at the same time supporting the “struggle” of the phony Ni Putes, Ni Soumises2.

The NPA3 has published two press releases to denounce the law, but has not engaged a national campaign against “Islamophobia”, to the great disappointment of its pro-SWP or anti-Islamophobia militants.

The POI (Independent Workers' Party, heir of the “Lambertist” OCI-PT) has taken a position against the law, underlining, like all its opponents, that this law will oblige women wearing burqas to stay at home, but the denunciation of the future law does not seem central in its press, as they devote their energy to attacking the government’s policy about pensions and company closures.

The fact that the reformist left is unable to take an active and united position against the anti-burqa law shows at least the tactical talent of Sarkozy for his (very probable) next presidential campaign. For the last three years, he has been able to use the divisions on the left, its ambiguities towards French nationalism and institutional racism, its unwillingness to defend a critical position towards all religions (including Islam), and its dramatically declining militancy in working class districts.

The reformist left has only been able to raise the rather abstract banner of anti-racism, which does not differentiate it from the main right and centre parties, even if some members of the political elite regularly express some form of (unconscious?) racism towards North Africans, Africans, Romas, etc. The far left has talked in a very general way of feminism and women’s rights but its presence in working class districts is too weak and too discrete to make the difference.

When some left-Republicans, feminists, Gaullists, extreme right wingers and fascist militants tried to organize together, on 18 June 2010, a “wine and sausage party” against Muslims in the 18th district of Paris 4, all the local left and far left militants met and distributed a leaflet.

As could be expected with such a broad coalition, it only denounced “racism” and “fascism” in a very abstract way, without being able to mobilise the inhabitants of this district against this xenophobic demonstration — which was finally banned by the authorities and took place instead on the Champs Elysees without being disturbed by any protester!

The problem posed by the burqa law is linked to two difficulties.

The first difficulty is in understanding Sarkozy’s tactics and strategy (the French President would be probably at pains to explain the coherence of his own policy!). The far left often presents Sarkozy as an evil “neoliberal” who wants to privatise all public services, and even sometimes as a copy of the National Front, an heir of Marshal Pétain who collaborated with the Germans when Hitler’s soldiers occupied France during the Second World War.

It’s quite obvious Sarkozy is not a friend of the working class, and that he is going to reduce a good part of the services “offered” by the welfare state. But his political strength is to play on the Gaullist-statist tradition (unanimously praised by the reformist left) and to try to make people think the French state is going to save industry, to save the Euro, to prevent the world economic crisis from touching France — a bit like the Chernobyl cloud was supposed to avoid crossing French territory and go directly to Italy!

As regards Islam, the left and the far left show the same difficulty and inability to explain and understand the UMP’s policy when they denounce its so-called “Islamophobia”.

It’s a nonsense to call Sarkozy “Islamophobic”. This is a man who forced the main tendencies of French Islam to unite in a common organisation (the Consultative Council of Muslim Religion) in order to organise the cooperation between the Minister of Interior and the main Muslim associations; who has decided that the French state will finance the secular traning of 50 imams every year at… the Catholic Institute of Paris; who took with him to Iraq the leaders of the main French Muslim associations, so that they could send a religious message to the kidnappers when a French journalist was held hostage for months, etc.

In the same vein, the left and far left have denounced André Gérin as “Islamophobic” while this Stalinist MP (re-elected three times since 1985 and a member of the Communist Party Central Committee until 2000) has been cooperating for years in his constituency (Venissieux, a suburb of Lyon) with all Muslim associations, generously helping them, supporting the return to France of several French Muslims detained at Guantanamo, inviting Tariq Ramadan to the parliamentary commission about the anti-burqa law, and referring to all sorts of Muslim religious authorities to prove that the burqa is… anti-Islamic.

The second problem which the left does not want to confront is why Franco-French workers are hostile to the burqa and not indifferent to the hijab in the streets and in classrooms.

It’s certainly not because they are more feminist, than, say British or German workers.

But it’s probably linked to the fact that the French bourgeois Republic has been built on a very long and intense conflict with the Catholic church. So religion is a very touchy subject, and the development of a recently imported, non-western religion inside France provokes all sorts of xenophobic reactions or at least fear and misunderstanding.

The margin between nationalism, xenophobia and racism is quite thin, but one should not mix all negative reactions against the hijab or the burqa under the confused and manipulative term of “Islamophobia”. One should try to differentiate them, even if one condemns them all as expressions of nasty divisions among the exploited.

As a militant in a network supporting migrants in their fight to get legalised, I can testify that French workers, even when they express negative comments about Muslim “ostensible religious symbols” are at the same time often ready to express their concrete solidarity towards a “Muslim” when he/she is arrested or threatened with deportation from France, at least if they know him/her, if they work in the same company, live in the same district, if their children attend the same school.

In France, both the right and the left are taking a more “multiculturalist” political orientation, which should normally lead to a change in the 1905 law regulating the relationships between the State and the “cults”, i.e. religions. This legal change would probably have negative effects and give more power to religious authorities over their respective sheep.

But even if there are a lot of debates about a more “open” form of “laïcité” (often translated in English as secularism, although it has a different meaning in French), no important political party is ready to call for a referendum about the place of religions in France today or to seriously launch a national debate about this subject.

This is why this debate is both permanent (sometimes in tiny intellectual circles, sometimes in the mass media) and never finished. Obviously it’s manipulated by all political parties but it touches identity problems for which the far left (or the left) has no quick-and-easy answers.

Calling for “workers’ solidarity” or “equal rights for men and women, nationals and foreigners”, when unemployment grows dramatically, when new populist and fascist parties are defending secularism and the gains of the Enlightenment, is not enough. One has to propose another general perspective, an alternative to the dog-eat-dog cult of individualism which is central to modern capitalism. This radically new vision is tragically missing among “revolutionary” groups.

Notes:

1. Muslim fundamentalists are supposed to represent anything from 5,000 to 50,000 people of the four million Muslims living in France, of whom two million are French-born and 2 million are immigrants.

2. Ni Putes Ni Soumises is a small group initiated by the Socialist Party and which was supposed to defend women’s rights in working-class districts, but is actually not very active and whose former leader — Fadela Amara — has agreed to participate to Sarkozy’s government…

3. The NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party) is a new larger group formed by the Trotskyist LCR which dissolved itself and has an even looser policy than its predecessor.

4. The 18th district is a working class area hosting a high proportion of foreigners, and also Muslims who are obliged to pray in the street because their mosque is too small.

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