French president Nicolas Sarkozy, flagging in the opinion polls, is attempting to boost his popularity with appeals to the right and an exaggerated concern about the state of integration — or not — of France’s Muslim minority into national life.
This has been shown most obviously with the recent ban on wearing the burqa or niqab (face veil) in public.
This law came into force on 11 April. Ostensibly a law against “hiding your face in public”, the law has so many exceptions — wearing a mask for sport, work, carnivals, etc — and the debate around it makes it clear that it is aimed at the tiny minority of French Muslim women who wear the niqab/burqa (authorities put the number at about 1,900). There are estimated to be about five million women of Muslim background in France.
Sarkozy’s party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), recently held a conference to discuss the integration of Muslims into French life, and have produced 26 proposals for discussion. These include extending a prohibition on wearing headscarves in school to mothers accompanying school trips.
The proposals seem to be aimed most at convincing potential Front National (FN) voters, with their anxieties about the number of French Muslims (10%), that the UMP is “on the case”, and at reinforcing what they have been attempting for years now, to foster a specifically French Islam, without ties to foreign influences including more fundamentalist strains in the Middle East and north Africa.
Thus, one of the 26 proposals is “the exercise of religious services outside of religious buildings will be subject to permission”. Sarkozy has expressed concern about the Islam “of the cellars”, where the state cannot hear what is being preached.
In 2004, the government banned the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools; this included large crosses and the Jewish skullcap, but was mainly targeted at the headscarf worn by some young women from a Muslim background.
Sarkozy has been shaken by opinion polls which show that he would do worse in next year’s presidential first round vote than Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the Front National. A Le Parisien poll showed Le Pen on 23 per cent, Sarkozy on 21 per cent, and Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry on 21 per cent. Aubry is likely to be replaced as the Socialist Party candidate by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is likely to do better than Aubry.
On these figures, Sarkozy would not be present in the second round, which would be between a Socialist Party candidate and Le Pen.
A majority of the public, around 76%, supports the burqa ban. The ban is also supported by a majority of Muslims.