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France’s intolerant face

So much for Liberté, égalité, fraternité. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government has just exposed the ugly face of official intolerance by enforcing a pathetic but draconian law that prohibits women from wearing full-face veils in public. Those who defy the law risk arrest, public humiliation, a $200 fine and being frogmarched into re-education classes.

Whatever one thinks of such garb as the niqab or burqa, this sets a dark precedent for intolerance toward Europe’s estimated 44 million Muslims. Already, women have been detained under the new law, outside Sarkozy’s Elysée Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral. Ironically, women are free to sunbathe topless at Cannes, but may no longer cover their faces there.

This shockingly illiberal law stigmatizes the very few French women – some 2,000 or so in a population of 5 million Muslims — who wear the veil. The claim that this vulnerable mini-minority somehow threatens France’s 62 million people is risible. Yet this isn’t the first targeting of Muslim practices. Years ago France banned Islamic head scarves in classrooms. Even so, Islamophobia shows no sign of being appeased.

The women who now find themselves on the wrong side of the law don’t pose a security threat. They’re not trying to immigrate, travel, vote or apply for government services, where an identity check might be reasonable. And they aren’t judges, teachers, police or other government officials, dealing with the public. They are just private citizens minding their own private business.

Why can’t they catch a bus to work, see a movie, enjoy a bite of lunch or take their toddlers to the park without fearing arrest? Supporters of the law claim to be concerned about protecting women from abuse. But this risks turning those who willingly wear the veil for religious/cultural reasons into a hidden underclass, cloistered in their homes.

As the Star has argued before, laws that in effect single out Muslim women send the odious message that they must behave and look more like the “mainstream,” whatever that is, in order to exercise basic human rights. And Canada, while so far more tolerant than France, isn’t immune. The Conservatives have tried to strip people of the right to vote if they refuse to uncover their faces, and Quebec denies public services to veiled women.

If freedom, equality and “brotherliness” mean anything, they should include the right to get on with a peaceful life without being singled out, harassed and fined for being different. A liberal state has no business in the wardrobe choices of the nation.

For more information visiit: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/article/973130–france-s-intolerant-face

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