The French parliament voted last week to outlaw the wearing of full-face veils, like the burqa or niqab, in public. Only one deputy voted against, with the Socialists and Greens abstaining.
It is a law that will immediately affect fewer than 2,000 people since only around 0.1 percent of Muslim women living in France wear full-face veils.
France’s constitutional council has already indicated that legal complications mean the measure may never be implemented.
It follows the referendum vote against the building of mosques in Switzerland and the decisions to ban veils in Belgium, and parts of Spain and northern Italy.
These are all measures aimed at inflating the “danger” of Islamic fundamentalism by scapegoating a minority of Muslims.
Months of hysterical outbursts against the veils have seen leading politicians equate them with Mickey Mouse masks, muzzles or “walking coffins”.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that full-face and full-body veils “oppress women” and are not welcome in France. The onslaught legitimises Islamophobia.
In western France earlier this year a woman had her veil ripped from her face in a shop. Regional elections this spring saw a surge in support for the fascist National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But the measure is also an indication of the weakness of Sarkozy’s presidency. He came to power promising a “break” with the compromises of previous governments of both left and right.
His mission was to assert an uncompromising neoliberal agenda and to face down resistance.
Instead his government has, like its predecessors, learnt that resistance is hard to quell and now finds itself embroiled in a major corruption scandal.
In this context Islamophobic legislation acts as a substitute for measures which the government has been unable to implement and deflects attention from its own shortcomings. Why, then, is the rest of the left not exposing government racism?
Where are the demonstrations in defence of France’s Muslim community?
Why, in a country that has seen social movements on an unparalleled scale over the past decade and a half, has the left failed to oppose Islamophobia?
Part of the answer lies with the hold of the Republican tradition of secularism over the French left.
In the late 19th century this took the form of anti-clericalism, a powerful tool against the influence of the monarchist Catholic church.
But it was also, as the socialist Paul Lafargue argued, a way of getting workers “to eat priests rather than eat capitalists”.
This opened up a space for Republican nationalism to root itself in the Socialist and Communist traditions.
In the 1980s, once the Socialist Party had abandoned its ambitious plans for social reform, it turned to Republican nationalism as a substitute. It invoked “Republican values” as an alternative to the rise of Le Pen.
This in turn disarmed the left when Muslims were attacked during successive headscarf affairs from the late 1980s. Eventually the hijab was banned from schools in 2004.
Once a weapon against the wealth and privilege of the Catholic church, Republican secularism has become a means of scapegoating France’s oppressed Muslim minority.
The ban on full-face veils is based on a series of myths – that Muslim extremism is a greater problem than Islamophobia, or that women have more freedom when the state tells them what they can wear.
These myths can be challenged, but this requires a concerted and unequivocal campaign that identifies Islamophobia, and not Islam, as the enemy.
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