Workers Vanguard No. 979

29 April 2011


France: Down With Racist Anti-Veil Law!

PARIS, April 18—In a blatant display of contempt for anyone deemed insufficiently “assimilated” into (white, Catholic) French society, a new law makes it illegal for women to appear in any public area while wearing the full Muslim veil—burqa or niqab. With this law, the French capitalist ruling class is fraudulently trying to pass itself off as the great liberator and protector of Muslim women. But this law is no blow against women’s oppression; it is an anti-democratic outrage that sets up fully veiled women for harassment, arrest and worse. In barring them from appearing in public, it amounts to a state-enforced French version of purdah (seclusion in the home).

Careful not to mention the Islamic covering by name, the new law simply states that “no one shall, in any public space, wear clothing designed to conceal the face.” But the law is commonly known for what it is: the anti-burqa law. So far, in the week since it went into effect on April 11, four women in the Paris region have been fined.

The vote on the law took place last fall with virtually no dissent. With the government of Nicolas Sarkozy gearing up for massive attacks on workers’ pensions, the racist campaign against the veil clearly served to divide and weaken the multiethnic working class. And by voting for or abstaining on the bill, the reformist workers parties—the Socialist Party, Communist Party and Left Party—demonstrated that they would not stand in Sarkozy’s way.

As the Ligue Trotskyste, French section of the International Communist League, observed in Le Bolchévik No. 192 (June 2010), “The French reformists snap to attention when ‘secularism’ is invoked, even when it’s by the government in its racist campaigns against the population with a Muslim background.” The article noted that the left capitulated to the government’s 2003 campaign against the veil, which was launched in order to head off renewed struggle in defense of pensions for teachers, for whom “secularism” is a sacred principle. The state persecution of Muslim women—among the most oppressed in society—is poison to workers struggles and must be combated by the workers movement.

The Sarkozy government has launched a massive propaganda offensive against the tiny number of women in France—estimated at just 2,000—who wear the full-face veil. Some 100,000 posters and 400,000 flyers were printed for distribution at government offices and schools, as well as airports and other entry points into the country. A new Web site, “Uncovered Face,” was launched and government circulars explained in painstaking detail the need to “solemnly reaffirm the values of the Republic and the requirements of living together.” Public sector workers, for example, are told not to serve fully veiled women and to demand that they either unveil or depart the premises. Police are to be called if the women prove recalcitrant.

As to what is considered “facial concealment,” bandages and motorcycle riders’ helmets are okay but, along with burqas and niqabs, hoods, masks and pretty much any other attire that prevents the face from being easily seen are verboten. To be sure, this law is not going to be used to go after bundled-up skiers in the French Alps, street-corner Santas or those attending costume balls. It is aimed first and foremost at Muslim women, but also at their husbands, brothers and sons, who are implicitly portrayed as woman-hating bigots. While women face fines of up to 150 euros [$220] and may be forced to attend “citizenship” classes, those who are said to “force” another to conceal her face can be threatened with huge fines of between 30,000 and 60,000 euros.

Moreover, in banning hoods, this law gives a green light and legal cover for further police harassment and attacks on young men in the suburban ghettos (banlieues) for whom the hooded sweatshirt is standard dress. Even wearing a mask on a political demonstration—like those with Sarkozy’s face, which is quite common these days—could well expose activists to more police repression.

As fighters for the liberation of women, we Marxists oppose the veil—be it a full niqab or merely a headscarf—as a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression. We stand in solidarity with those women who fight to escape the tyranny of this oppressive “tradition” and all other forms of reactionary religious traditionalism, from the bride price and arranged marriage to female genital mutilation. But the French government’s ban on the niqab and burqa in public places, like its earlier ban on the headscarf or hijab in the schools, has nothing to do with sexual equality or integrating Muslim women into society. In France and elsewhere in Europe, the oppressed Muslim minority suffers the daily humiliations of racism, segregation and police violence. The numerous and varied laws targeting Muslim women are an expression of this. We unambiguously oppose these racist and discriminatory laws, which have, for example, seen Muslim girls and women expelled from schools and driven from workplaces, further isolating them from society and deepening their oppression.

With breathtaking arrogance, the Sarkozy government portrays itself as the best defender of secularism and the separation of church or mosque and state. The principle of secularism, as it arose during the French Revolution, came out of the fight to rip the emerging bourgeois society from the stranglehold of the Catholic church. Today’s racist crusade against Muslim women has absolutely nothing to do with the separation of church and state, which Marxists uphold. The fact is that the French state is a far cry from secular: one-fifth of all primary and secondary education, which is financed by the state, has traditionally fallen under the control of the Catholic priests. In upholding the genuine separation of church or mosque and state, we oppose such state subsidies for churches, mosques, etc. and all state funding of religious schools, as well as religious instruction in the public schools.

In its opposition to women wearing the veil, the reformists of Lutte Ouvrière (LO) imbibe the “values” of the French rulers, waving the banner of bourgeois “secularism.” Indeed, LO was in the forefront of the 2003 campaign against two high school girls, Alma and Lila Lévy, who were expelled from their school in a Paris suburb for wearing the headscarf. These expulsions paved the way for right-wing president Jacques Chirac’s 2004 law banning young women in headscarves from the high schools, a law that LO welcomed.

More recently, LO was quick to laud the commission—initiated by Communist Party deputy André Gérin—that proposed the new anti-veil bill. LO opined that “it doesn’t seem to be an extraordinary measure to ask someone to enter public buildings with their face exposed. Even banks oblige their clients to do that!” (Lutte Ouvrière, 30 January 2010). A few months later, Lutte Ouvrière (9 July 2010) complained about the “hypocrisy” of the government because of its “policy of concessions to ‘law-and-order’ and anti-Muslim prejudice” even as it repeated LO’s support to the law against the headscarf in schools. Speaking of “law and order,” LO was elected on Gérin’s slate in 2008, constituting the majority of the Vénissieux municipal council near Lyons, where it has regularly voted for the municipal budget, including funds for the municipal police!

As for the reformist New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), while it opposed the new anti-veil law, one of its prominent national leaders, Pierre-François Grond, is a teacher who was a leader of the reactionary campaign to kick Alma and Lila Lévy out of school. Meanwhile, in the 2010 regional elections, the NPA fielded a woman wearing a headscarf on one of its electoral lists, flying in the face of the obligation for Marxists to combat religious backwardness. These consummate opportunists, who will tail anything, are presently locked in a rip-roaring fight over whether they should capitulate to bourgeois “republican secularism” or to religion. So far they’re doing both.

The anti-veil law is part of a larger ruling-class offensive against immigrants and their descendents, Muslims in particular, who face daily police harassment, threats of being stripped of their French citizenship and deportation. Last fall, Roma (Gypsies) were tossed on airplanes and deported to Romania. More recently, the French and Italian governments have been engaged in a racist contest over who can best keep Tunisian immigrants out of their country. The “anti-terror” and anti-Muslim hysteria launched by the government and aided by its left “opposition” fuels racist reaction and emboldens the likes of the fascist National Front. A deadly danger to the multiracial working class, the National Front significantly increased its percentage of votes in recent county assembly elections. Struggling for class unity, workers must oppose all the racist laws targeting immigrants and fight for full citizenship rights for all.

The capitalist rulers would have us believe that a tiny, vulnerable Muslim minority represents the main threat to the rights of women. In fact, it is the rule of the bourgeoisie which upholds the reactionary institution of the family, the central force that oppresses women the world over. The family is the vehicle for transmitting property from one generation to the next and the mechanism for raising new generations of workers. Bourgeois family law is thus tightly bound up with defense of private property, and women’s inequality is always reflected in the legal and social codes of every capitalist society. Reactionary ideology and religious obscurantism can never be combated by reactionary bourgeois laws. Women’s oppression originates in class society and can only be eradicated through the destruction of capitalist rule, laying the basis for replacing the functions of the family with socialized childcare and housework in an egalitarian socialist society.

To achieve this goal, it is necessary to build a revolutionary workers party that will fight in the interests of all workers and thus against racist terror and the oppression of women. For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!