x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sarkozy niqab ban strikes at heart of French liberty

France's ban on the niqab, a law with a shabby political motivation, violates the very sense of what it is to enjoy the country's vaunted "liberté".

For something with such potentially serious and far-reaching consequences for the country, the trial in France last week of two women for wearing the niqab in public had elements of a farce.

Around 70 campaigners gathered outside the courthouse in Meaux, east of Paris, to support two women who were arrested at a previous demonstration against the ban. Once again, they were breaking the law by wearing niqabs. They carried with them a cake for the city's mayor, whose birthday it was. Further farce followed when one of the two women charged with wearing a niqab was not allowed into the court because she was wearing a niqab. A comical day for French justice.

The consequences only become apparent the day after. By putting French women on trial for wearing niqabs, the French state is now attacking the very fabric of what it is to be French. Moreover, it is seeking to define what kind of freedom its citizens have. The message is: Liberté, but only our way.

France's ban on the wearing of the niqab and the burqa - the full length veils worn by a minority of Muslim women, which partially cover the face - in public spaces is now in its second month. The basis of the law has never been clearly clarified and it remains spuriously useful: there are estimated to be only 2,000 women in the whole of France who wear the niqab.

Yet the danger of the ban is far-reaching. Because the law is not about proscribing unlawful behaviour but about prescribing lawful behaviour. That is to say, the ban does not target a harmful activity - because there is nothing harmful about wearing a piece of cloth - and seek to prevent it by criminalising it, but rather the law seeks to prescribe what is and is not acceptable behaviour. In the specific context of France, this is an attempt to regulate norms of what count as "French" behaviour.

France has always taken a more regimented approach to national culture and identity than, for example, the laissez-faire approach taken by Britain.

One example is the French language, with the French Academy seeking to be the official authority on which words are acceptable as "French". Even in culture a firmer hand is taken, with French radio stations required by law to play a certain percentage of French music.

There is not, broadly, a problem with a state seeking to influence the private behaviour of its citizens nor with a country trying to maintain its cultural traditions. But this change is being brought about by the French themselves: the people who most oppose the ban are French, secular and religious. They recognise that this attempt to regulate what France "is" is regressive.

The ban is really about taking a particular view of what French identity norms are and then proscribing behaviour that deviates from that. In language, this is an attempt to keep French "pure", resisting the influence of other languages, especially English. In identity, it is a decision that the niqab represents something other, something foreign, and then attempting to proscribe it.

But while the origins of the niqab may be outside of France, it is being worn by French citizens, whose opinion of what counts as "French" deserves a hearing. Identity, even national identity, is constantly changing.

What really counts with the niqab ban is not the practice but the principle. The niqab is not common in France. But in seeking to ban it, the French authorities are saying something about French cultural identity that also applies to other practices, religious or otherwise. It applies to other social innovations brought in from outside, adapted or homegrown. In seeking to keep French identity "pure", the state is really pushing its idea of an old-fashioned cultural identity.

The law also strikes at the heart of what makes France France. The European tradition of liberty is not absolute and in practice often falls short of its ideals. Yet the idea that the state can decide what its citizens can and can't wear in their daily lives goes against the Fifth Republic's founding principle of liberty.

There is a political rather than philosophical logic to the ban. The ruling right-wing party of Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking to inoculate itself against a challenge from more hard-line right-wing parties and personalities ahead of the upcoming presidential elections next year.

Yet its targets in this respect are highly suspect. In his memoirs, to be published next month, France's previous president Jacques Chirac criticises Mr Sarkozy for his willingness to "stigmatise, exacerbate antagonisms and set one category [of people] against another". That analysis seems to fit the niqab ban: the ban is aimed at impressing a far-right constituency, at the expense of those French citizens who are targeted.

Philosophically, the ban is dangerous. The state is not banning an item of clothing on legitimate security grounds, nor on grounds of public decency or purported harm to the wearer. Once the principle of the state interfering in the private dress of its citizens - beyond a metaphorical and literal bare minimum - is established, the liberty of its citizens is reduced. Part of the principle of private liberty is the freedom to choose to wear whatever clothing is pleasing, rather than for the state to dictate fashion norms.

There are many ways to be free. By prosecuting its citizens for their choice of clothing, the French state is telling its citizens how to be free - and thus removing their liberty to choose.