If there were any doubt about the motivation for the ban on Islamic face coverings passed by the French national assembly in July, the Sarkozy government’s actions in August have laid them to rest.
The issue isn’t women’s emancipation, for all the pious rhetoric we’ve heard about equality being a “primordial value” of the French nation. It isn’t the danger that terrorists and robbers will hide behind burqas in order to blow up buildings or rob banks – the exemptions in the law for motorcycle helmets, fencing and ski masks, and carnival costumes quickly dispel that argument. And it isn’t about enforcing openness and transparency as an aspect of French culture.
Outlawing what the French call “le voile intégral” is part of a campaign to purify and protect national identity, purging so-called foreign elements – although many of these “foreigners” are actually French citizens – from membership in the nation. It is part of a cynical bid by Sarkozy and his party to capture the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus that has brought electoral gains to the rightwing National Front party and to disarm the Socialist opposition, which has so far offered little resistance to the xenophobic campaign.