Saturday, 27 August 2016

Republican values and the burkini ban

In Britain, we proclaim the sanctity of “national values”. These are wonderful things, like tolerance and respect for the views of others. Sadly, they’re often espoused by people who want to ram them down the throats of minorities, whether they like it or not.

In the States, as far as I can see, the preference is for “American values” or “traditional values”. They tend to be much the same, and there seems to be just as little compunction about inflicting them on other people. Some championing them might, say, propose to ban an entire religious community from entering the country.

In France, the equivalent concept is “republican values”. In one of my favourite films, Casablanca, there’s a moment that grates each time I hear it (and I’ve watched the film a lot). It’s when the character Yvonne, tearful after singing the Marseillaise, cries out, “Vive la France! Vive la démocracie!” That’s a splendidly American slogan artificially transferred to the mouth of a Frenchwoman. In reality, her words would have been, “Vive la France! Vive la République!”

The founding document for France’s valeurs républicaines was the Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted as the Revolution was getting under way and before the country had even become a Republic.

Article 4 boldly declares:

Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does no one else any harm: in other words, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limit other than those that guarantee to other members of Society the enjoyment of those same rights. Those limits may only be established by Law.

The declaration isn’t a religious document. It makes no reference to God or to any Church. But it isn’t anti-religious either. So article 10 asserts:

None may be disturbed for their opinions, including religious ones, as long as their expression does not disturb public order as established by Law.

France is currently gripped by a debate over whether the burkini, the whole-body covering swimsuit favoured by a tiny minority of Muslim women, can legitimately be banned from French beaches. Those who favour the ban include the former and likely-to-be future President, Nicolas Sarkozy, the current Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, and naturally the leader of the far-right Front National and presidential contender, Marine le Pen.

A Muslim woman obliged to remove a long-sleeved top on a beach
Not so nice of the Nice police
They all see the ban as a necessary precaution to protect republican values from the threat posed by Muslim extremism. They are all the more urgent in their call for the ban as a response to the terrorism of recent months. This despite the fact that, to my knowledge, not a single act of terrorism has ever been carried out by a woman in a burkini.

It’s not obvious, on the other hand, how they reconcile it with the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

First of all, let’s dispose of the simplest objection: ‘Man’ in this context means ‘mankind’. The rights apply as fully to women as to men.

Is the ban consistent with article 10? Is the wearing of the burkini likely to lead to a disturbance of the peace as foreseen by law? There have certainly been nasty scenes of public disorder over the wearing of Muslim garb, but generally in the form of abuse of the Muslims. “Go home” people have shouted, at women who in many cases were already at home, being French. The women were the victims of the disorder, not its instigators. Describing their actions as a breach of the peace seems like turning rape victims into criminals.

As for article 4, what could be clearer? You have the right to do whatever you like as long as your action doesn’t limit anyone else’s rights. How does the wearing of a burkini affect anyone else’s liberty? It doesn’t stop other people using the beach. It doesn’t stop them wearing revealing clothes. It doesn’t even stop them thinking the burkini inappropriate beachwear. It limits no one else’s rights.

Far from upholding republican values, the burkini ban seems to trample on the very principles they enshrine.

The truth is that the ban has nothing to do with republican values. It’s about people who have been frightened by an enemy who reaches into our midst and kills at random. A hidden enemy against whom we can’t hit back. Fear and frustration have brought to the surface a tendency latent in us all: racism is on the rise again. Muslims today must feel like Jews did when anti-Semitism was rampant but the holocaust hadn’t yet got going: they must be worried to go out, they must be worried to travel, they must feel that they can expect no protection from state.

We’ve been her before and we know where it leads. We need to stop it now before it descends to the next stage.

The signs aren’t good. Sarkozy is a significant political figure. In Britain, Nigel Farage campaigned against the EU with a poster declaring the country to be at breaking point, against a photograph of Syrians queueing to enter Europe. In the States Donald Trump is Farage’s pal, and he’s called for a wall against Mexicans and a ban on Muslim entering. This is the establishment giving racism a respectable face.

There’s hope yet, though. The Cour Constitutionnel in France has ruled the ban illegal, which suggests that some in France remain truly committed to republican values. However, Sarkozy had already said that if the court made that choice, he would campaign for a change in the constitution. The court's resistance was edifying but may not last long.

More encouraging was hearing Angela Merkel speaking to German TV.

“If I have to apologise for showing a friendly face [to people from other nations],” she said, then this is not my country any more.”

Merkel’s no radical Lefty. She’s the Christian Democrat leader of Europe’s most powerful nation. If such voices are still speaking out, and can still be heard, then hope isn’t wholly lost. We just need to join our voices with theirs.

In defence of republican values. Or American values. Or traditional values. Or national values.

In fact, in defence of decent values anywhere.


Anonymous said...

Interesting points and I am sure they wil be made again and again, are they right or wrong? We have national pride and identity and it was probably even stronger I our parents generation and even stronger in our grandparents generation. It's fair to ask why this should not be the case we were after all the same people, Northern European with similar likes and dislikes. We now live in a nation divided by culture with ghetto divisions, who wants that and who benefits from it. There was a great difference in days gone by rightly or wrongly Britain ruled vast swathes as an invading and ruling power never as an invited guest. Currently immigrant groups are guests and as such to integrate and join probably should adopt the ways of their host nation. We are a long way off the great melting pot of humanity and only in the early stages when guests owe their hosts total respect and tolerance rather than the opposite. This will all change as cheap air travel continues to be the great international leveller. Unfortunately fictional religion continues to be the great divide as it always has responsible for almost all wars and deaths. Fictional hatred.

David Beeson said...

I'm not sure things were that different a few decades ago. I think it was as uncomfortable to be a Jew or an Irishman, later a West Indian, in Britain at various times in the last century as it is to be a Muslim today.

Nor am I convinced that respect is only ever due in one direction only. Guests owe their hosts respect, indeed, but I think hosts are under the same duty to their guests. In fact, I think you've touched on the key problem: it's lack of mutual respect that causes so much pain.