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Sarkozy: Burqas not welcome in France

June 22, 2009 |  4:50 pm

Burqa Earlier today, in a wing of the opulent Palace of Versailles -- a symbol of France's once-grand monarchy -- President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed Parliament for the first time in (yes) almost 150 years with a message just as old: France will keep its values, and those who come here must adhere to them.

Much to the chagrin of many French political parties (the Green and Socialist parties did not show up) and an already divided French population on this issue, Sarkozy once again condemned the wearing of burqas by Muslim women in France. According to BBC News, the president declared the following:

It will not be welcome on French soil. We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity.

For at least the past five years, wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, or hijab, has been under attack in France. In 2004, former President Jacques Chirac signed off on a ban on wearing all religious dress (including headscarves) at public schools. What lies at the heart of the French skittishness toward exotic religious garb isn't pure xenophobia, but rather the country's tradition of assimilation. Far more than most Western cultures, the French are known for insisting that all people, especially immigrants, subordinate their religious and cultural beliefs to a common French identity.

This approach differs quite drastically from both the United States and the United Kingdom, whose leaders speak eloquently in favor of freedom of religious expression -- even if that expression is extreme by Western standards. President Obama pointed out in his speech in Cairo earlier this month, "The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it." Likewise, Great Britain has supported its subjects' right to wear the hijab in public.

Sarkozy's motivation -- assuming a reasonable absence of political calculation -- is admirable: No woman should be forced to be hidden behind a veil. Still, many women choose to wear burqas as a show of respect for their religion, not out of subservience. Strangely, Sarkozy has put himself in the paradoxical position of appealing to modern Western ideals of universal human dignity to make the case for antiquated French values. The result is precisely the opposite of Sarkozy's rhetoric: By singling out burqas as an abomination to French culture, the president has reinforced the discrimination faced by many immigrants by contributing to their marginalization. These residents, after all, are simply trying to adhere to the beliefs they held long before becoming subjects of the French assimilation machinery.

--Catherine Lyons

Photo: Two women, one wearing the niqab, a veil worn by the most conservative Muslims that exposes only a woman's eyes, right, walk side by side, in the Belsunce district of downtown Marseille, France. Credit: Claude Paris / AP

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