France's other worlds: burqa and abyss

The degrading realities of France’s survivalist economy put the country’s latest debate about Islamic apparel into perspective, says Patrice de Beer.
Patrice de Beer
3 March 2010

The campaign for the regional elections on 14 and 21 March 2010 seems already all but lost by the party of France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy. In order to infuse it with at least a semblance of life, parts of the political elite have found an appealing tonic: Islam-bashing. This sorry game has become a near-permanent element of French political life - all too often combined in a toxic mix with unfounded insinuations about crime and immigration (see “France: identity in question”, 11 December 2009).

The latest episode of the obsession is the campaign waged by politicians from across the spectrum against the burqa - the body-covering garment worn by (it is estimated) fewer than 2,000 Muslim women in France. A parliamentary committee led by a communist mayor met for months to discuss the issue, and concluded by demanding that the wearing of the burqa in all public places be banned. The implication was that the republic itself was under threat of “invasion” by Islamic hordes (the very word was used by the centre-right mayor of Marseilles, who represents Sarkozy’s Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle [UMP]). The morbid consequences include the centre-left mayor of Roubaix (northern France) choosing to sue the fast-food chain Quick for discrimination against non-Muslims after a local branch followed the policy of serving only halal burgers in a handful of outlets.

French Muslims, a tiny though active extremist fringe excepted, want only to integrate and be treated like their “white” compatriots (see Henri Astier, "We want to be French!", 22 November 2005). True, the fact that immigrants - legal or not - tend often to be poor, from rural backgrounds and less educated means that some cultural clashes are unavoidable. But though the French may fear increasing crime they do not link this issue with immigration; and on the whole they worry more about the impact of globalisation and the financial crisis on jobs, incomes, healthcare and pensions. Yet Islam and some forms of expression linked to it have become for many a bogeyman (see James Joyner, “French Burqa Ban Widely Supported in Europe”, New Atlanticist, 1 March 2010).

The hard question

This suspicion of Islam is part of the wider and very particular attitude to religion in France - one both rooted in the country’s modern history and shared by the vast majority of French people of foreign origin (see Johannes Willms, "France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?", 26 February 2004). In a fundamentally secular society where laïcité remains a sacrosanct principle, the display of religious symbols in public places is looked on with disfavour (for example, civil servants and teachers are forbidden to wear them at work). Even most French Muslims support (or at least accept) the restrictions on the wearing of the hijab (Islamic headscarf) in schools and public offices passed in 2004, and many also see the burqa as a sign of “communalist” refusal by a few to integrate into French society which taints the whole (see John R Bowen, Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space [Princeton University Press, 2006]).

Many feminists too regard the hijab and burqa as symbols of oppression of women that abuses Muslim scriptures to entrench male hegemony. Some clerics in France cite judgments by the authorities at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University to the effect that the Qur’an makes no commandment on the wearing of such coverings; but this is often combined with resentment of the political instrumentalisation of the apparel (the attack on a post office on 7 February 2010 by two men covered by a burqa is a gift to such efforts). The problem remains of how to find a way to raise the question without this being seen as only or primarily “anti-Islam” (see Patrick Weil, "A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf", 25 March 2004).

The favoured fear

In any event, the burqa (like the hijab before it) may be less a genuinely important issue in France than a blanket shrouding more fundamental problems - ones that that French society is unable or unwilling to solve.

There are, after all, other ways of addressing the realities of disaffection and refusal of which such Islamic symbols are seen as the expression (see “France’s lost and found ideals”, 13 May 2009). If, for example, more serious measures were undertaken to ease the integration into French society of young people of non-European origin (many of them Muslim); if an invisible (and often visible) “glass ceiling” that blocks their access to jobs they are qualified for were lifted; if there were more non-white business executives, top civil servants, or MPs elected from within metropolitan France (at present there is just one in this category). So often, politicians (especially but not only from the government side) prefer to pre-empt criticism for their inaction in such areas by projecting blame for France’s defects onto outsiders/immigrants/others (and Muslims above all).

Many people of all social backgrounds in France recall the slogan which helped Nicolas Sarkozy win the election in 2007 - “work more to earn more” - and compare it to the increase in unemployment by 16.4% (to 4 million) in 2009-10. Today, factories are closing; millions of middle-class people fear both for their income and their social status; and hundreds of thousands of long-term unemployed people will be deprived of all income-support this year in the attempt to force them into work. It is little wonder too that popular discontent with the country’s leaders is high (see “French Dissatisfaction with Sarkozy Keeps Growing”, Angus Reid Global Monitor, 3 March 2010).

The netherworld economy

Two recent documents show how fractured and stressed French society has become. The first is the annual report from the French médiateur (ombudsman) Jean-Paul Delevoye, a former UMP stalwart from a dying species, the social Christians. He writes in Le Monde: “Before, we were exhausted at work. Now we are exhausted everywhere, we are on our nerves all the time in all walks of life”. In this “broken” society, people are fed up with the bureaucratic jungle; and those born overseas face especial harassment when they try to get identity papers (see Jean-Paul Delevoye, “La société française est fatiguée psychiquement”, Le Monde, 21 February 2010).

Delevoye says that 15 million people are at financial breaking-point at the end of every month. “The state's toolbox is inadequate ... For the administration deals only with files, not with people”.... as “the gap between citizen and the state widens” and “society is in a state of great nervous stress, as if it were psychologically exhausted”. In France, Delevoye adds, parallel societies coexist: the official one which everyone knows and an underground one which lives on social handouts, black-market jobs and networks”.

Delevoye expresses the hope that a political class which devotes too much time on managing collective emotions and not enough time on building a collective vision will “stop playing politics”. It seems a vain wish (see “Sarkozyland: France's inward politics”, 16 June 2009).

The second document is a book by Florence Aubenas, a reporter from the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur known for her daring (she has worked in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and was held hostage in Iraq for five months in 2005). The now 49-year-old Aubenas left her desk-job to spend six months as an unemployed person looking for work in Caen, Normandy. She portrays the wretched outcasts of social liberalism in Le quai de Ouistreham (Editions de l'Olivier), whose bleak texture echoes earlier excursions into the world of precarious employment by George Orwell, Günter Wallraff, Polly Toynbee, and Barbara Ehrenreich.

This netherworld is one where Florence Aubenas never earned as much as €700 ($945) a month as a cleaning-lady, even when working early morning or late evening on short-term contracts (Contract Duration Determinée / CDD) with near-zero rights and no trade unions in sight. This is an ever more polarised world where the proportion of short-term contracts has risen to 85% of the whole (and 63% last less than one month). In this world, to get €200 ($270) in severance-pay is considered a “golden parachute”, and a permanent contract (Contrat à Durée Indéterminée / CDI) enabling work from 5.30am to 8am a "door to paradise”.

Aubenas cleaned vomit and toilets in ferries from England to Ouistreham, was bullied by foremen, had to queue for hours at the Pôle Emploi (unemployment agency) where she was told she was “rather in the bottom of the pan” (too old), had a five-minute medical-check in a caravan without even being properly examined, and was “managed" by overworked employees who have to supervise hundreds of cases. She found herself doing painful, back-breaking jobs where paid “hours” often last more than sixty minutes; but which women have to take because there is nothing else available - except on occasion being sent to bogus training-courses so they can be omitted from the unemployment statistics (“Florence Aubenas, undercover on the crisis”, PressEurop, 26 February 2010).

A Pôle Emploi employee is quoted in Le quai de Ouistreham saying: “Revolution? That's bullshit! People are too scared!” Millions of French people live - or rather survive - in the “underground society” described by Jean-Pierre Delevoye and briefly inhabited by Florence Aubenas. In such an environment, politicians find it easier to instil fear of a burqa than search for more than band-aid solutions to economic and social problems.

It would be comforting to add: “....until the coming elections”. But, as a former government minister (British, Labour) once told me bluntly: “Patrice, what do you expect? The unemployed don't vote!” 

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