Posts Tagged 'sarkozy'

Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

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Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”

The full Monty

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

“I like the idea of living your work, writing your life. My life is like a text I can endlessly correct,” Bernard-Henri Levy said in an interview with Vanity Fair’s Joan Juliet Buck some years ago.

He could definitely do with some whiteout right now.

France’s star philosopher, with his trademark unbuttoned white shirts, has really embarrassed himself this time. In his latest book, “De la guerre en philosophie” (Of War in Philosophy), Levy takes potshots at 18th-century German heavyweight Immanuel Kant calling him, among others, “raving mad” and a “fake.”

To add to his firepower, Levy, known in France by his initials BHL, employs the devastating critique of Jean-Baptiste Botul — more specifically of his lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay, where Botul once and for all debunks their hero as “an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance.”

Save for one little problem: Botul is no more real than a Greek budget surplus. Botul, the intellectual founder of Botulism and writer of, well, “The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant,” is a fabrication of Frederic Pages, a French journalist. Far from unbuttoned, the emperor appeared to be wearing no clothes at all.

It’s hard to see how BHL fell for this one, given that even Wikipedia describes Botul as a fictional French philosopher. Still, Levy tried to put on a brave face. “As it turns out, it was a hoax. It was a truly brilliant and very believable hoax,” the author said last week. “Hats off for this invented-but-more-real-than-real Kant, whose portrait, whether signed Botul, Pages or John Smith, seems to be in harmony with my idea of a Kant who was tormented by demons that were less theoretical than it seemed.”

But few people would buy that one.

Leaving his bedroom habits aside, biographers agree that Kant lived a rather mundane life. He was born, lived and died in Konigsberg, a Prussian university town that is now Kaliningrad, Russia. He was so regular in his habits, legend has it, that locals used to set their clocks by his afternoon walk.

BHL, on the other hand, is not exactly what you call low-profile. With his wind-swept hairstyle, golden tan and designer suits, Levy is the modern-day reincarnation of left-bank philosophers, that peculiarly French breed of celebrity thinker. Before turning into a regular fixture on France’s TV panels and Paris Match weekly, Levy was the founder and main voice of France’s “nouveaux philosophes,” an anti-communist and unusually pro-American movement in the 1970s.

His media savviness, perceived hollowness and narcissist know-it-all style have won him many enemies, including late philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis and Gilles Deleuze. BHL is probably what inspired sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s bashing of “les fast thinkers,” the instant experts endlessly parading on the nation’s television sets.
In their book “Une Imposture Francaise” (A French Imposter), journalists Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer paint an elaborate profile of BHL; and it’s not a very flattering one: “A philosopher who’s never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible and the totally false, a patchwork filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre, he is the icon of a media-driven society in which simple appearance weighs more than the substance of things. BHL is thus first and foremost a great communicator, the PR man of the only product he really knows how to sell: himself.”

Not surprisingly, his enemies prefer to call him BHV after France’s department store: It has something for everyone.

Worse, perhaps, Levy has been accused of cozying up to socialists (Francois Mitterrand) and conservatives (Nicolas Sarkozy) alike, depending on the political zeitgeist, partly in order to push the career of his feline actress wife Arielle Dombasle, whether as head of the commission for the promotion of French cinema or, later, as president of the state-owned Arte network.

So many were delighted with BHL falling for the prank, even though it was not directed against him. In that sense, it was different when author William Boyd pulled a scam in the late-90s with the aim of exposing the pretensions of the art world’s glitterati. For years, Boyd had been crafting the portrait of Nat Tate, a supposedly talented albeit forgotten American painter. A friend of Pablo Picasso and a lover of Peggy Guggenheim, an abstract expressionist suffering from depression, Tate killed himself at the age of 31 after destroying all, or in fact (pun intended) “99 percent,” his work.

On the eve of April Fools’ Day of 1998, Boyd launched his biography of Tate by throwing a party that attracted the typical New York art crowd. He was not alone in the trick. David Bowie read extracts from the book which included endorsements by Picasso biographer John Richardson and author Gore Vidal — “an essential dignified drunk with nothing to say,” the latter recalled on the dust jacket. The funny thing is more people that night recalled their own meetings with Tate.

Ironically, Kant held that we cannot grasp the world as it really is; we can only know the things as they appear to us — yet it’s doubtful that BHL or other prank victims will turn to the German for comfort.

Poor Levy, would have been better off trusting the words of Monty Python instead: “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant, who was very rarely stable.”

Liberte, egalite, fraternite?

By Harry van Versendaal

No wonder Hassen Chalghoumi receives death threats these days. The Tunisian-born imam of Drancy, an industrial suburb northeast of Paris, has come out in favor of a French government proposal to ban face-covering veils in public places.

“The burqa is a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist indoctrination,” the 36-year-old Chalghoumi told Le Parisien daily last week, adding that if Muslim women wish to cover their faces, they should move to a place where this is acceptable practice. “Like Saudi Arabia,” for example. Not exactly the words you’d expect to hear from a Muslim cleric.

The burqa debate has spawned confusion in France, first of all over the ulterior motives. The proposed ban has widely been scoffed as a political tactic aimed at swaying center-right supporters and undermining the xenophobic National Front ahead of regional elections in March. But such cynical interpretation underestimates the French preoccupation with Frenchness: the usual animating myths about French exceptionalism — much of it delusional fluff but a preoccupation nevertheless.

Oddly, the controversial imam seems to have a clearer idea about what it means to be French than most of France’s political leaders. An ongoing national debate on French identity, launched last year by President Nicolas Sarkozy, has generated more ambiguity than clarity. Politicians’ comments have often tread on the frontiers of political correctness, while a purpose-built website has turned into an outlet of extremism and xenophobia. “Being French means being white. That’s all,” one contributor wrote, according to an AFP report. “Being French means learning to park your car in a garage to avoid having it torched,” posted another in a reference to the riots in the banlieues in 2005.

A parliamentary panel set up to discuss the issue recommended on Tuesday that France ban the wearing of all-enveloping veils in public places like schools, hospitals and public transport, reasoning that the burqa (or more accurately the “niqab,” a face-covering veil with a slit for the eyes) is “contrary to the values of the republic.” The report, some 200 pages that took 6 months to prepare, said among other things that civil servants should refuse to serve veiled women who turn up at public offices.

The 32-member commission fell short of proposing an all-out ban on burqas, although earlier comments by French politicians had presaged otherwise. In his state-of-the-nation address last year, Sarkozy described the burqa as “a sign of subservience and debasement” that is “not welcome” in France. Andre Gerin, the communist head of the parliamentary commission, has in the past lashed out against “the French Taliban who force women to be veiled.” However, concerns that a ban would be unconstitutional and fears of terrorist reprisal (al-Qaida in the summer threatened to “take revenge” on France) seem to have induced second thoughts.

About 6 million Muslims live in France today — the largest Muslim community in western Europe — yet no more than 2,000 wear the full veil. Wary of being accused as racist, Sarkozy has sought to portray the move as a security threat and as an attack on French secular values — most prominently “laicite,” a militant form of secularism born out of the 1789 revolution, which keeps faith strictly limited to the private sphere. Visiting an oft-vandalized Muslim cemetery in northern France this week, Sarkozy said that secularism “is not the negation of religion” but “an essential component of our identity.”

No other European country has so far introduced similar laws but the debate is gaining momentum across the Continent. Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, still dealing with the ramifications of the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005, said that the burqa and the niqab have no place in the Nordic country because “they symbolize a view of women and humanity that we totally oppose and that we want to combat in Danish society.” The Dutch government is mulling legislation banning the veil for teachers and civil servants, while several districts in Belgium have already banned the garb under local laws. Across the Channel, Britain, known for its liberal live-and-let-live ethos, has so far resisted pressure from the right. Education secretary Ed Balls last week said that such ban was “not British, it is unfair, it is not consistent with our traditions of liberty and freedom.”

It was an interesting formulation, if only because the French claim to be defending those very traditions. Balls’s comments highlight the philosophical complications — even paradoxes — surrounding the veil ban, exposing the blurred boundaries between freedom and coercion as western states seek to impose their liberal norms and values on newcomers.

In British eyes, the French are more concerned with “egalite” than “liberte.” The truth is, the French have a different, more aggressive understanding of liberty, what philosophers call “positive liberty,” whereby the state has an obligation to protect individuals against the diktats of culture and religion. Proponents of negative liberty, meaning the freedom from something (i.e. the freedom not to be forced to do something, like remove one’s veil), claim it is preferable to positive liberty because the later is open to state abuse. But it’s hard to sympathize when you see a young girl wrapped up to the eyeballs.

It seems fair to say that it is Muslim migrants who need to adjust to Europe’s secular values, not vice versa. More than a sign of female subjugation, the veil is a sign of separation; it’s like saying “I am not one of you, I do not belong here.” Xavier Bertrand, head of Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, had a point when he said recently that the full veil “will make no one believe a woman wearing it wants to integrate.”

Again, Chalghoumi was the first to agree. “Having French nationality means wanting to take part in society, at school, at work,” he said. “But with a bit of cloth over their faces, what can these women share with us?”

If only integration was simply a matter of lifting the veil.


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