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The Veil and the Political Unconscious of French Republicanism

The French obsession with the veil exceeds that of most other countries in the West. Why? Analysis of an American historian specializing in France.

The official French preoccupation with the veil exceeds that of most other countries in Western Europe. In the Anglo-American world, even post 9/11, the veil is not seen as the flag of an insurrection; nor is the suppression of ethnic, racial, and religious differences a requirement for inclusion in the nation. A line from the American poet, Walt Whitman, captures something of the way diversity is celebrated here: “I am large, I contain multitudes,” he wrote. This is not to say that there aren’t terrible and enduring problems of discrimination based on differences (of race especially) in the US, just to note that differences are here recognized as part of the national heritage. They are tracked in the census, documented in official data collections, understood to be the source of our cultural richness. Hyphenated designations (African-American, Italian-American, Jewish-American, Muslim-American) signal acceptance of the fact that political and cultural identities can co-exist without damaging the essential unity of the nation. If, as in the current presidential primary season, major fissures have been exposed, these are based more on economic than on ethnic or religious differences. It is vast inequalities of wealth and not communal affiliations that are dividing the electorate and our politicians in the US right now.

“Political hysteria”

For these reasons, the French obsession with the veil seems to many of us to have taken the form of what Emmanuel Terray diagnosed in 2004 as “political hysteria.” The furious rhetoric, dire warnings, and punitive laws directed at articles of women’s clothing (hijab, voile intégrale, abaya) seem excessive, if not unreasonable. The warning in 1989 from Alain Finkielkraut, Elisabeth Badinter and others that failure to ban the hijab in schools would become “the Munich” of the Republic led some of us to wonder how these supposedly serious intellectuals could so overstate their case. In recent days, Laurence Rossignol’s comment likening wearing the veil to submitting oneself to slavery elicited a similar response—did she have any idea of the history to which she was referring? And when Charlie Hebdo and then the editors of Libération warned of the inevitable slippery slope from the veil to terrorist bombings and condemned as “Islamo-gauchistes” those who denounced their conflation of Muslim customs with political Islam, it was hard not read their texts as exemplifying the very Islamophobia they were so vociferously denying.

The insistence that laïcité requires banning the veil in the name of women’s equality is another troubling aspect of the obsession with Muslim women’s clothing. Those of us who know something of the history of this term are surprised to find it invoked as a principle of gender equality. That was surely not a consideration for the anti-clericals who coined the term in 1871, nor for the authors of the 1905 law. While the 1905 law requires state neutrality in matters of religion, it says nothing at all about how women should be treated. It is instead “la nouvelle laïcité” (so named by François Baroin in 2003 as the headscarf ban was being debated) that attributes a concern for the equality of women and men to the founding principles of the Republic. It is also la nouvelle laïcité that relocates a requirement of neutrality from the state to its citizens, from state offices and state representatives to all public space and to all inhabitants of that space. La nouvelle laïcité demands that individuals understand that religious neutrality, defined as the absence of all but the most discreet signs of religious affiliation, is a pre-requisite for membership in the nation.

From its first usage in 1871 by anti-clerical campaigners, the word laïcité has been a polemical term; then it was aimed at ending the public power of the Catholic church, now it is used to define a Frenchness that excludes Muslims. Both usages of the term have identified women as a particular danger to the Republic. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, these were French women said to be under the influence of priests; in the 21st century, these are Muslim women whose veils signify an unacceptable “defaut d’assimilation,” and an aggressive refusal of the equality said to be a hallmark of the Republic. Finkielkraut put it baldly during an interview with the NY Times: “Secularism has got to prevail,” he insisted. “And we can’t compromise on the status of women….Everything plays out there.” (NYT 03/12/16)

Uncovered Marianne

It is well known that cultural assimilation is a defining characteristic of Frenchness. The goal of representing France as a homogeneous nation is an old one; generations of immigrants have been expected to perfect the language, identify with “nos ancêtres les Gaulois,” and declare their primary loyalty to the cultural as well as political aspects of the country. But it is rare that proponents of assimilation have singled out women as the target in the way they have now. Why have women become the object of so much concern? Most terrorists are men; the armies of ISIS are overwhelmingly male. Why have French politicians, notoriously resistant to passing laws about domestic violence, sexual harassment or equal pay, and (for the most part) actively opposed to implementation of the law on parité—why have these men (with some feminist support) become so concerned about the status of women when it comes to Islam? What does their obsession with the clothing of Muslim women tell us about the anxieties of French republicans?

Certainly, republicans are appealing to a long-standing idea of homogeneous Frenchness and to a vision of laïcité in which religion is privatized, a matter of individual conscience not to be publicly displayed. From this perspective, perhaps, Muslim women’s dress is seen to more visibly mark their religious affiliation than the clothing of Muslim men. Republicans are also drawing on the remainders of the colonial “civilizing mission” which touted the superior treatment of French women (well before they voted or were free of the restrictions of the Napoleonic Code) to that of “native” women, whose veils then were taken as a sign of erotic enticement, not (as today) of sexual repression. And, too, there is the uncovered Marianne, an idealized symbol of the nation; breast bared she is Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people or the icon who sits in the hôtels de ville of many municipalities. In the current polemic, the uncovered Marianne is the embodiment of emancipated French women in contrast to the veiled woman said to be subordinated by Islam.

Unacknowledged but persistent contradiction

But I think there is more to it than that, something that might be called the political unconscious of French republicanism which is fueling the hysteria around Muslim women’s dress. The hysteria we are witnessing stems from an unacknowledged but persistent contradiction within French republicanism between political equality and sexual difference. It may not be the direct motive for Badinter, or for that matter, Manuel Valls, but I think it troubles even their adamant defense of the secular Republic and helps explain the more general obsession with Muslim women and their veils.

The contradiction has been evident since 1789 and did not disappear when women won the vote in 1944. Citizenship in France is based on abstract individualism. The individual is the essential unit, regardless of religion, ethnicity, social position, or occupation. When they are abstracted from these traits, individuals are considered to be the same, that is equal. In the long history of French politics, the one obstacle to sameness has been sexual difference, taken to be a natural distinction and therefore not susceptible to abstraction. Nature has decreed a lack of sameness (an inequality) that society cannot correct. In this view, men can escape their sex, but women cannot. There is then a deep incompatibility between the universal promise of equality in republican political theory and the inequality decreed by nature. Sexual difference does not seem susceptible to republican logic.

When women won the vote, it was as a particular group, not as individuals. In the debates about parité, the position that finally won passage of the law offered the heterosexual couple as a substitute for the singular individual. Sylviane Agasinki argued (for parité and against the PaCS in 1999) that there could be neither same-sex parliaments nor same-sex families. The complementarity of difference substituted for the equality of all individuals. In the éloges to seduction as a trait of French national character complementarity is asymmetrical: women “lovingly consent” to their subordination to men.

The emphasis on the openness of seductive play between women and men, and especially the public display of women’s bodies, serves to demonstrate the difference of women and the need for different treatment of them. As such, it denies the problem that sex poses for republican political theory. Paradoxically, the objectification of women’s sexuality serves to veil a constitutive contradiction of French republicanism—it’s inability to reconcile “natural” sexual difference with the promise of equality for all.

Challenging the republican theory

Muslim women’s dress seems to present a challenge to this view of things, threatening to expose the denied or repressed contradiction of republican theory. Modest dress directly addresses the problems that sex and sexuality pose for social relations and for politics. It declares that sexual relations are off-limits in public places. Some Muslim feminists say this actually liberates them, but whether it does nor not, or whether, indeed every woman who dons a veil understands its symbolism in this way, the veil signals the acceptance of sexuality and even its celebration, but only under proper circumstances—that is, in private, within the family. The paradox here is that the veil makes explicit—available for all to see—the rules of public gendered interaction, which declare sexual exchanges out of bounds in public space.

It is this explicit acknowledgment of a problem that French political theory wants to deny that makes the veil “conspicuous” in the sexual sense of that word. Muslim women’s dress is a statement about the difficulties that sex presents for public interactions—difficulties French republicans want to deny. Their pious pronouncements about equality are at odds with their deep uneasiness about sharing power with the opposite sex. Seduction is, for them, a preferable alternative.

I don’t want to deny the patriarchal aspects of Muslim practices, but nor should we ignore the fact that there is not perfect gender equality in France. Women are objectified in both systems, albeit in different ways. My point here is that the current political hysteria about the veil needs to be understood not as a simple and logical response to terrorism, nor as a principled endorsement of gender equality. It is instead a way of denying existing and persisting inequalities within French society (inequalities that extend from gender to race and ethnicity). These inequalities are a not an aberration; they are integral to a political system that makes an abstract sameness the ground for equality and the concrete difference of sex the exception and the justification for an inequality, which because it is “natural,” cannot be named as such.

This is perhaps another way of saying that all the attention to the inequality said to be the plight only of Muslim women is a way of denying persistent problems of inequality for French women—different ones to be sure, but inequalities which have not been resolved by law (the vote, changes in the civil code, parité) or other means. To be sure, gender inequality exists in the Anglo-American world as well, but it hasn’t taken the form of an obsession with Muslim women and their veils—an obsession that we might characterize as “une singularité française.”