Unveiling the cynicism

2011-03-10 00:00

FROM the beginning of next month, it will be illegal for a Muslim woman in France to wear a full-face veil (niqab) in any public place. An opinion poll last week suggested that Marine LePen, the new leader of the far-right National Front, could win the first round of next year’s presidential elections in France. These two facts are not unconnected.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is in a panic as the National Front gains in the polls, for his own core vote is also on the right. He has responded by ordering a nationwide debate on Islam’s place in secular France and he has made it quite clear which side he is on: he wants no minarets in France, he tells journalists, and no halaal food in school canteens. But the new anti-niqab law is the centrepiece of his strategy. It is a solution to a problem that does not exist. There are around five million Muslims in France, about eight percent of the population, but only a couple of hundred Muslim Frenchwomen wear the niqab in public.

They probably shouldn’t drive, since all that paraphernalia severely restricts their field of vision, but in what sense is their occasional presence in public spaces a threat to society?

In fact, there are probably more British women wearing niqab in my small patch of London than there are French women wearing niqab in the entire country. In Camden Town, I see them in the supermarket, on the bus, in the street — and when I overhear them talking to their husbands or their children, I notice that most of them have London accents.

That’s because most of the niqab-wearers are not immigrants. They are the British-born daughters of immigrants and the fact that they now appear in public wearing this extreme garb — which was not normally worn by women back in Pakistan, or Algeria, or wherever their parents come from — is part of the crisis that always affects second-generation immigrants everywhere.

The men of the conservative older generation are horrified as their daughters absorb the values of the larger society around them, and they try desperately to isolate them from those influences. It was a losing battle for Italian and Jewish fathers in New York 100 years ago and it’s a losing battle for Algerian and Indian fathers in London and Paris now.

But these things take time to work out, and in the meantime, a tiny minority of British Muslim women wear niqabs, and an even tinier minority of Muslim Frenchwomen. So why would a French government ban women wearing niqab from taking a bus, entering a shop, or even just walking down the street, on pain of a 150-euro fine?

In addition to a fine, the wicked transgressors will be obliged to attend a citizenship class that stresses the egalitarian values of the French republic, including gender equality. This is a very large sledgehammer being used to crack a very small nut. But it will have served its purpose if it gets Sarkozy re-elected.

The right is in the ascendant in French politics and this has unleashed a wave of panic-mongering over “multiculturalism”. Assimilation of second- and third-generation immigrants is actually proceeding at the normal pace, but in the midst of the process it is possible to believe that the cultural turmoil is leading to a permanently divided society. Most people on the right do believe that.

Whoever can more convincingly claim to have the solution for this imaginary problem wins the right-wing vote, and the National Front is drawing ahead of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front came second in the 2002 presidential election; under the leadership of his daughter Marine Le Pen, it could do even better.

The recent opinion poll commissioned by Le Parisien newspaper gave her 23% of the vote, while Sarkozy’s party and the Socialists got 21% each. She has ditched the National Front’s neo-fascist and racist rhetoric in favour of a low-key, “common-sense” style that is having a real political impact.

But all she can do is force a run-off second round in which, like her father in 2002, she would be overwhelmingly defeated. French political parties are divided on many things, but they would all unite to keep the National Front from power.

The tide of Islamophobia is running strongly on the European right at the moment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been trumpeting the failure of multiculturalism for the past six months, and British Prime Minister David Cameron recently added his voice to the chorus. It is only a cynical political stratagem, but it could have real consequences.

Left to their own devices, the various immigrant groups in these countries, including the Muslim groups, will assimilate to the general society in a couple of generations, as immigrants generally do. You can accelerate the process a little with the right government policies, but not much. However, you could stall it entirely by attacking the minority groups and driving them into cultural ghettoes. That’s the game that Sarkozy is playing now.

• Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Climate Wars, is distributed in most countries by Oneworld.

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