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France : liberty, equality, secularism?
On the 11th April, France's law banning the burqa came into force. Officially, whoever covers his or her face in public places (restaurants, transports, hospitals....) will be fined 150 Euros. The law was voted in by the French Assembly in September 2010, after months of deliberation, consultation and speculation, to ban burqas and other full-body robes worn by women in all public places. Opposed by the Socialist Party, who argued the bill would be inapplicable, the banning of the burqa was supported by the government and feminist organization 'Ni putes ni soumises' (neither whores, nor slaves).
As the enforcement of this law will undoubtedly cause incidents, Home Secretary Claude Guéant, distributed a guide which specified the details of the procedure to be applied. Some exceptions are mentioned in this text in case of celebrations, or religious traditional processions. It is also mentioned that any man forcing a woman to wear a burqa or a niqab will face a year in jail or a 30,000 Euros (£25,000) fine.
Police officers will not be allowed to require people to remove burqas or niqabs. However, they are allowed to bring anyone who refuses to show their face for an identity check to the police station.
The enforcement of this law is all the more sensitive as it comes just a week after a highly controversial debate about 'secularism and Islam', organized by Nicolas Sarkozy's political party UMP. It was accused, amongst other things, of "stigmatising Muslims", especially by Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, who unofficially boycotted the debate, as did the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). Leading figures of other religions (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Buddhist) also insisted that the debate on Islam and Secularism was not relevant in these terms.
Have a look at this fascinating debate on France 24
The debate, chaired by the General Secretary of the UMP, Jean-François Copé, lead to 26 legislative bills aimed at reinforcing the country's secularism , which was enshrined in a law of 1905. Nowadays, this bill seems to be obsolete, with regards to issues such as halal food being served in schools and Muslims praying in the street when mosques are too crowded. In other words, it raises the question of the right balance between France's national principle of secularism and freedom of religion.
Among the ideas promoted by the UMP, a 'Secularism Code' has been evoked. Following the principle of the Napoleonic Code, it would control every aspect of religion in public places. Such an idea has aroused the curiosity of the British media, which has begun to wonder whether England will be next to follow France's banning of the burqa. On BBC News, a women wearing the burqa claimed that such a law would be an attack on freedom of religion, while, on the contrary, a man argued that 'most of the terrorists are Muslims'. No doubt the debate is raging in the UK as well.
Over the last few months, Nicolas Sarkozy's government and political party, UMP, have been harshly criticized for targeting Islam, France's second largest religion with six million faithfuls according to government estimates (although such figures must be considered carefully, as there are no statistics about religion in France). Critics have also accused the French President of dealing with some of the far-right party's long-standing soap boxes in order to seduce its voters.
In an article published last week, daily newspaper Le Monde revealed that Nicolas Sarkozy's main adviser Patrick Buisson, close to the far-right, has convinced the President to remain faithful to his strategy of "neutralising" Ms Le Pen by encroaching upon its voters, instead of attacking her on her unworkable economic and political programme. This is undoubtedly quite risqué to tackle immigration from such an electoral perspective. Will it be the winning strategy at the 2012 presidential election ? Inch Allah.