Everything has already been said about this law (partly prepared by a Stalinist MP, André Gérin, who chaired a multiparty parliamentary commission for several months) which will be voted in September 2010 : Sarkozy is dramatically loosing ground in the polls ; he wants to keep seducing the voters of the National Front ; French economy has serious problems so the UMP (main governmental party) is looking for a diversion ; the governement wants to justify French military intervention in Afghanistan ; salafists (1) are trying to infiltrate the working class districts populated by a majority of « Muslim » foreigners and French « Muslim » citizens with North African or African descent ; this new law is the continuation of the vicious debate about national identity launched by the UMP ; among the 2 000 women who supposedly wear the burqa in France, one can count many young, newly-converted, French women who behave like the members of a sect and don’t represent the « average Muslim » woman, etc.
Probably all these explanations have a bit of truth, but none of them explains the disarray of the Left and Far Left in front of this new law, presented by the French government as a « feminist » ( !) law.
If we consider the two main parties of the reformist Left, we can only observe a division in their ranks. The CP deputies will abstain but at least André Gérin will vote for it. The Socialist Party wanted to present a different law to unite all parties, but it will finally abstain, even if several « socialist » MPs have already announced they may vote the UMP law.
As regards the three main Far Left groups, the trotskyist Lutte ouvrière (Workers Struggle), after having apparently taken a position less critical towards the law, seems to have slightly changed its line and to now denounce the government’s maneuver while at the same time supporting the « struggle » of the phony Ni putes ni soumises (2).
The NPA (3) has published two press releases to denounce the law, but has not engaged a national campaign against « islamophobia », to the great disappointment of its pro-SWP or anti-islamophobia militants.
And the POI (Independant workers party, heir of the « lambertist » OCI-PT) has taken position against the law, underlining, like all its opponents, that this law will oblige women wearing burqas to stay at home, but the denounciation of the future law does not seem central in its press, as they devote their energy to attack the government’s policy about pensions and company closures.
The fact that the reformist Left is unable to take an active and united position against the anti-burqa law shows at least the tactical talent of Sarkozy for his (very probable) next presidential campaign. For the last three years, he has been able to use the divisions of the Left, its ambiguities towards French nationalism and institutional racism, its unwillingness to defend a critical position towards all religions (including islam), its dramatically declining militancy in working class districts.
The reformist Left has only been able to raise the rather abstract banner of antiracism, which does not differenciate it from the main Right and Center parties, even if some members of the political elite regularly express some form of (unconscious ?) racism towards North Africans, Africans, Romas, etc. The Far Left has talked in a very general way of feminism and women’s rights but its presence in working class districts is too weak and too discrete to make the difference.
When some Left Republicans, feminists, gaullists, extreme right wingers and fascist militants tried to organize together, on the 18th of June 2010, a « wine-sausage party » against Muslims in the 18th district of Paris (4), all the local Left and Far Left militants met and distributed a leaflet. As could be expected with such a broad coalition, it only denounced « racism » and « fascism » in a very abstract way, without being able to mobilize the inhabitants of this district against this xenophobic demonstration – which was finally banned by the authorities and took place instead on the Champs Elysees without being disturbed by any protester !
To come back to the title of this article, the problem posed by the burqa law is linked to two difficulties.
The first difficulty is to understanding Sarkozy’s tactics and strategy (the French President would be probably at pains to explain the coherence of his own policy !). The Far Left often presents Sarkozy as an evil « neoliberal » who wants to privatize all public services, and even sometimes as a copy of the National Front, a heir of Marshal Pétain who collaborated with the Germans when Hitler’s soldiers occupied France during the Second World War. It’s quite obvious Sarkozy is not a friend of the working class, and that he is going to reduce a good part of the services « offered » by the Welfare State. But his political strength is to play on the Gaullist-Statist tradition (unanimously praised by the reformist Left) and to try to make people think the French State is going to save the industry, to save the euro, to impede the world crisis to touch France – a bit like the Chernobyl cloud was supposed to evade crossing French territory and go directly to Italy !
As regards islam, the Left and the Far Left have the same difficulty and incapacity to explain and understand the UMP’s policy as shown when they denounce its so-called « islamophobia ». It’s a nonsense to call « islamophobic » Sarkozy, a man who forced the main tendencies of French islam to unite in a common organisation (the Consultative Council of Muslim Cult) in order to organize the cooperation between the minister of Interior and the main Muslim associations ; who has decided that the French State will finance the secular formation of 50 imams every year at the… Catholic Institute of Paris ; who took with him to Irak the leaders of the main French Muslim associations, so that they could send a religious message to the kidnappers when a French journalist was held hostage for months, etc.
In the same vein, the Left and Far Left have denounced André Gérin as « islamophobic » while this Stalinist MP (reelected 3 times since 1985 and member of the Central Comittee until 2000) has been cooperating for years in his constituency (Venissieux, a suburb of Lyon) with all Muslim associations, generously helping them, supporting the return to France of several French Muslims detained at Guantanamo, inviting Tariq Ramadan to the parliamentary commission about the antiburqa law, and referring to all sorts of Muslim religious authorities to prove that burqa is… anti-islamic.
The second problem which the Left does not want to confront is why Franco-French workers are hostile to the burqa and not indifferent to the hidjab (veil) in the streets and in class rooms. It’s certainly not because they are more feminist, say, than British or German workers. But it’s probably linked to the fact that French bourgeois Republic has been built on a very long and intense conflict with the Catholic church. So religion is a very touchy subject, and the development of a recently imported, non western religion inside France can only provoke all sorts of xenophobic reactions or at least fear and misunderstanding. The margin between nationalism, xenophoby and racism is quite thin, but one should not mix all negative reactions against the hijab or the burqa under the confuse and manipulative term of « islamophobia ». One should try to differenciate them, even if one condemns them all as expressions of nasty divisions among the exploited.
As a militant in a network supporting migrants in their fight to get legalized, I can testify that French workers, even when they express negative comments about Muslim « ostensible religious signs » are at the same time often ready to express their concrete solidarity towards a « Muslim » when he/she is arrested or threatened to be expelled from France, at least if they know him/her, if he works in the same company, lives in the same district, if his children are studying in the same school as his children, etc.
In France, both the Right and the Left are taking a more « multiculturalist » political orientation, which should normally lead to a change in the 1905 law regulating the relationships between the State and the « cults », i.e. religions. This legal change would probably have negative effects and give more power to religious authorities over their respective sheep. But even if there are a lot of debates about a more « open » form of « laïcité » (often translated in English as secularism, although it has a different meaning in French), no important political party is ready to call for a referendum about the place of religions in France today or to seriously launch a national debate about this kind f subject.
This is why this debate is both permanent (sometimes in tiny intellectual circles, sometimes in the mass media) and never finished. Obviously it’s manipulated by all political parties but it touches identity problems for which the Far Left (or the Left) has no quick-and-easy answers. Calling for « workers solidarity » or « equal rights for men and women, nationals and foreigners », when unemployment grows dramatically, when new populist and fascist parties are defending secularism and the gains of the Enlightenment, is not enough. One has to propose another general perspective, an alternative to the fight of all against all and cult of individualism which are central to modern capitalism. This radically new vision is tragically missing among « revolutionary » groups.
(Ni patrie ni frontières)
1. Muslim fundamentalists are supposed to represent from 5 000 to 50 000 people over the 4 million Muslims living in France, 2 millions being French, 2 millions being foreigners.
2. Ni putes ni soumises is a small group initiated by the Socialist party and which was supposed to defend women’s rights in working class districts, but is actually not very active and whose former leader – Fadela Amara – has accepted to participate to Sarkozy’s government…
3. The New Anticapitalist Party is a new larger group formed by the trotskyist LCR which dissolved itself and has an even looser policy than its predecessor.
4 . The 18th district is a working class area hosting a high proportion of foreigners, and also Muslims who are obliged to pray in the street because their mosk is too small.