The debate over Islam’s place in France has been at the forefront of national conversation in the past six years. The climax came 10 days ago when the French National Assembly approved a bill that severely infringes upon religious expression.
Last Tuesday, the French government passed a hotly contested ban on the wearing of burqas (full cloaks covering the body from head to toe) and niqabs (face veils) in public places. A 150-euro fine and mandatory attendance to classes on French history, culture and politics will now be required of anyone caught wearing such garments in public.
In the United States, the principle of freedom of religion has been called into question over the construction of the Park51 Islamic community center, or the “Ground Zero mosque” as it is often improperly referred to. Undoubtedly, the talking heads in the United States and international media have had a field day with the issue. But any question to potential interference by the federal government was answered on Aug. 13 when President Obama took his stance in defense of the right to construct the community center. Consequently, the building has continued on schedule despite public outrage.
In France, the battle over civil liberties, most specifically freedom of religious expression, has shifted in the opposite direction.
Leading up to last Tuesday, the French government has been taking an unyielding stance on the secularity of the public sphere – outlawing what I like to call PDRs (Public Displays of Religion) in various arenas of daily life. In 2004, the French banning of burqas and niqabs from public schools and public buildings sparked a heated debate in the international media on liberal secular society, immigration, xenophobia and religious freedoms.
While the majority of the French population supports the restrictions on religious expression in public (82 percent, according to an American Pew Research Center poll) the government has come under intense foreign scrutiny for its intolerance of religious and cultural practices.
Nevertheless, in stark contrast to the stance Obama took in support of religious freedom, the restrictive and intolerant French legislation was backed by BHO’s counterpart, French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy’s policies counter the very free and liberal culture he and many French citizens claim to defend. Certain accomplishments go overlooked, however, when passing judgment on the president’s hypocritical stance. While Sarkozy’s civil rights résumé may not be stellar, he does have one victory that has gone underappreciated – and it hits a little closer to home.
Le petit Nicolas, as Sarkozy (5-foot-5) is often referred to in France, backed the elimination of the minimum height requirement (5-foot-3) for joining the national police force on Aug. 10, an arcane standard of brow that had been in use for nearly 200 years – since Napoleon.
The French Police union Alliance Police Nationale supported the reform, condemning the height standard for prohibiting individuals who were “morally, physically and intellectually” apt from joining the ranks.
Sarkozy, the man who reportedly excludes large-sized security detail from his personal bodyguard entourage for fear of being overshadowed, has honored the legacy of his nation’s monolithic emperor – a homage that calls for an update of the tired term “Napoleon Complex” to a more current “Sarkozy Complex.”
So, while the rest of the Western world grapples with the increasingly contentious issue of assimilation and coexistence with Islam and its massive immigrant populations, France and Sarkozy have “solved” that issue and decided restriction is a better path than liberalism. Nevertheless, classifying Sarkozy and his countrymen as intolerant would surely be inaccurate, considering Sarkozy proved himself to be a protector of certain civil rights of profound societal significance.
But in all seriousness and practicality, Sarkozy will not be forced to account for his humorous, but at times frustrating, list of priorities. That leaves us with some food for thought: What if Sarkozy had a Muslim background, instead of a short stature?