Thoughts on “In a Ban, a Measure of European Tolerance”

This past week, the NYTimes published a piece on the aftermath of the passage of a law banning face covering veils. According to the article there seems to be a relative peace, one in which police and veiling-wearing women acknowledge the law but usually don’t act on it. Most affected women pull their veils off when they encounter police (rather than actively protest it), and most police either accept this or issue a small warning (rather than issue a fine).

The law has had very little actual impact on the daily lives of Muslim women. “Since the law went into effect, 425 women wearing full-face veils have been fined up to 150 euros ($188) each and 66 others have received warnings.” The police has no interest in increasing racial and religious tensions.

While debate over the law and its impacts reached a fever pitch before its passage, the reality of of life under the law is that very little has changed. Critics argued the law would increase tensions between the police and immigrant and Muslim populations in France. But, tolerance shown by both groups involved has led to a situation different from what many projected.

While this article was somewhat heartening to me because it hasn’t significantly increased tension or caused more conflict, it has made me reflect on the reasoning behind the law. As an American, I have had difficulty wrapping my head around the purpose of the law. On the one hand, I see it and the American perception of freedom of religion and expression as irreconcilable. I cannot fathom such a law passing Congress and being signed into law, much less upheld by a court in the U.S. But, on the other hand, I’ve slowly begun to understand that my American perceptions of these freedoms and the perspective of many French people and the French government (at least under Sarkozy, when the law was passed), are entirely different. though the American government and society and those of France are based largely on the same fundamental ideas of freedom, the realization of them are immensely different. I may be off on this, but I feel that in the U.S., we have codified freedoms and rights that are expressed and realized in any number of ways. But in France, I feel, many of the same freedoms and rights are codified, but there is a unique manner in which they’re realized. This manner is seen as the best possible to preserve longterm and society-wide acceptance of these freedoms.

In a sense, I see France as almost forcing assimilation with a “French” way of freedom. Indeed, the article notes that supporters believe that “France needed to protect its “republican values” of secularism in the public space; many also said that France’s Muslims, immigrants and French-born, must accept French norms.”

These beliefs reminds me of Achille Mbembe’s point from his 2005 articles written during and after the banlieue rights that the French government hasn’t come to terms with a post-colonial world and how to govern in it. Just as the French government forced (or tried to force) its colonial subjects in the Caribbean, Africa and Southeast Asia to assimilate with French society – celui des Français de souche ou des Français blancs du métropole – the government today imposes itself on the immigrants and minority citizens in an effort to force them to be “French.” These immigrants and minority citizens, then, can’t just immigrate to France and be considered “French” – they must display that they have given up their past ideas of governance, freedom, rights, etc. and accepted and embraced those of France to become “French.” The veil law seems to be an expression of the French government forcing those who aren’t “French” to become it – imposing itself on those who are racially and religious different or in the minority.  Sounds like quintessential neo-colonialism to me.