Malcolm Armsteen wrote:Your attempt to unhitch attacks on Muslim women for having their faces covered to a law which pandered to the right-wing forces that demanded that Muslim women not have their faces covered seems strained. Think about the permissions the law gives for behaviour.
The first thing to say about this is that the French left is just as keen as the islamophobic right on 'protecting' Muslim women from the oppressive veil. The socialist party made little effort to oppose the law, and several of its leaders actively argued for it, in the name of laïcité
. Anti-clericalism — or, on a practical level, the rigid enforcement of the separation of state from religion — is a powerful unifying force in French politics.
What was disturbing about the so-called debate on national identity which Sarkozy launched in support of his bill was the degree of consensus
around the issue. White French people are widely hostile to hyphened identities and what they call communitarisme
— the division of the population into a number of ghettoised 'ethnic' sub-communities (which they associate with the American model). The French state, let's not forget, still refuses to compile statistics on the ethnic origins or religious identification of its people, on the grounds of laïcité
. To the majority of white French folk (on the left or the right), being French is the only political identity that counts: the others (Jew, gay, Arab) are recreational.
Compare that with the debate on gay marriage which has dominated French political discourse this year. It has been a very polarising issue. The antis have spewed their homophobia all over the media; they managed to mobilise perhaps a third of a million demonstrators, including my stepmother, on a grim winter's day, and maintained much of that momentum even beyond the passage of the bill last month. The virulence of the antis' campaign, the hatred in their hearts, brought me to tears on numerous occasions, and left me feeling frightened and angry. But I happened to be in the south of France on the day of the first same-sex wedding, and so I joined the crowd outside the town hall, and when Vincent said oui
to Bruno through the loudspeakers, the most enormous cheer went up. The folk around me — straight, gay, cis and trans — all began snogging their partners there and then, in front of the cameras and the riot police (who were enjoying a quiet afternoon in the sun). There had been two camps, in disagreement, and our side had prevailed. That's politics.
I would be pessimistic for Britain if I thought there was a consensus against multiculturalism, but there isn't. The groundswell against further immigration is, I think, broader — the question is whether it translates into extra prejudice and violence against migrants themselves. The sun is still out today, so I will say that I doubt it. I'm not quite so optimistic for France, where the legacy of right-wing populism is longer and more 'impressive', and where the Front National has an established political presence. But it would only need a couple of multinationals to pull out of the country, citing a hostile political climate, for the far right to lose its lustre. French businesspeople are obsessed with their country's international image.
I know I sound complacent — the success of the gay marriage bill is a part of that. But I've lived almost all my life under right-wing governments*, and in spite of that, the Europe I live in now is a more just and tolerant place than the one I was born into. And I see no reason why that shouldn't continue.
Born 1973, Scotland (Heath)
1973-81, France (7 years of right-wing govt, six months of Mitterrand)
1981-98, UK (16 years of Tory govt, 1 year of New Lab)
1998-2008, France (4 years of cohabitation, 6 of Chirac/Sarkozy)
2008-present, UK (2 years of exhausted New Lab, 3 of Cameron)
Total: 32 years of right-wing govt, 4 of cohab, 3.5 of left(ish) govt