Yesterday the beginning of France’s ban on covering ones face in public (aimed of course at women wearing burqas and niqabs) began with some predictable political theatre. Some protesters obligingly turned up to break the new law, and the police gratified France’s politicians and newspaper photographers by arresting them.
No one should pretend that the wearing of a burqa is unproblematic. In my opinion, covering ones face takes “modesty” to an extreme that can only be justified by a paternalistic view of women being far to attractive for their own good. But as Mark Wallace pointed out in an excellent blog post from last July, just because something is bad doesn’t make banning it an improvement:
…if you find it is un-British to see someone in a burqa lounging in the park, consider for a moment quite how un-British it would be to see that person cuffed, and bundled into a police van – just for attending a picnic.
While we won’t be seeing that scene in Britain (ever, I hope), it looks as if it may become a fixture outside Notre Dame. (While the woman in the picture, Kenza Drider, was arrested for carrying out an unauthorised demonstration rather than wearing the niqab, another woman was fined for wearing a niqab yesterday.)
What is particularly worrying about the French ban is the spinelessness displayed by deputies in the National Assembly. Only one (apparently a Green) voted against the ban, arguing that existing laws were sufficient to protect public safety. And even a critic like Socialist Jean Glavery abstained with the rest of his party with this muddled argument:
Many of us cannot vote against this text, because we too are against the wearing of the full-body veil. But we cannot vote for it because the debate on the burqa is part of government manoeuvres linked to the debate on national identity. As for abstention, it is difficult to explain to public opinion.
The idea that parliamentarians should oppose the ban on the principle that in a liberal democracy the police shouldn’t be able to arrest anyone on the street for wearing “too much” clothing – even if they believe it is wrong to wear a full-face veil – did not seem to occur to any of France’s elected representatives.
As if this was not evidence enough of the lack of consciousness about civil liberties in French lawmaking, it turns out that France’s new data retention law requires webmail services and e-commerce sites to keep records of unhashed (unencrypted) customer passwords among other personal details. As Cory Doctorow points out, this is a massive hacking risk and it seems disproportionate for the French state to be able to demand to see someone’s passwords.
All this leaves me being far from the only person to wonder where the liberté has gone from liberté, egalité, fraternité:
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