French laws against Muslim women with face-coverings stand in marked contrast to its pandemic policy. Is this a double standard?

Division and hate are the usual results when allegedly civilised societies get involved in debates about face coverings. 

Whether it is Boris Johnson describing women in burqas as “looking like letter boxes” or “bank robbers” when he was a Conservative backbencher, or the French Socialist Laurence Rossignol comparing them to “negroes who supported slavery,” the tone is always ugly in the extreme.

So vitriolic, in fact, that a decade ago it seemed like the entire might of the Paris establishment was aimed at criminalising anybody who wanted to hide their most prominent features in public places.

A ban introduced to international fanfare in 2010 nominally applied to “any face covering”, including headwear such as winter balaclavas and motorcycle helmets, but the real target was the niqab – a black garment draped over everything except the eyes and hands, and mainly worn by a very small minority of Muslim women.  

Disingenuous arguments ranging from “protecting national security” to “liberating women in a secular society” were advanced by deceitful politicians during parliamentary sessions. They also insisted that covering your face was an affront to “le vivre ensemble” – literally “living together” and the ideological basis for harmonious existence in democratic societies.

The one-term conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed with customary pomposity: “In our country, we cannot accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom.”

How trite and misguided such words sound today, as both France and Britain slowly introduce the mass wearing of face masks in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than an existential threat – one that dehumanises wearers – covering up is now seen as a means of preventing contagion, and so helping to ensure survival.

In France – where more than 27,000 have died from Covid-19 – anyone caught without a mask on public transport now faces a fine of 135 euros ($146). School pupils have to wear them, and shopkeepers are allowed to refuse service to those without one.  

Yet – and this says so much about the venom which underpinned the 2010 legislation – any Muslim woman in a niqabstill risks a fine of 150 euros ($162) and compulsory attendance at a citizenship class. If she is stopped at a Paris Metro station, for example, without a more conventional mask, she could accordingly be handed a combined penalty of 285 euros ($308) – one that would multiply for repeat offences.  

Those with the wrong sort of face covering will continue to be openly stigmatised too, and not just by police officers who have issued thousands of euros in fines since 2011. Physical attacks on those who wear a niqab persist, and verbal insults are even more common.  

Unmasked agendas

More than this, the so-called burqa ban – named after a full body garment more common in Afghanistan but hardly ever seen in France – has had a predictably pernicious effect on all Muslim communities. 

The ban has become a convenient tool for agenda-led politicians and their legions of propagandists, including high profile writers and pop philosophers, who want to use anything they can to spread collective guilt against some five million followers of Islam in France.

Xenophobic tactics extend to linking the small number of women who actually wear the niqab – estimates range between 400 and 2000 maximum – to as many criminal threats as possible, from wife beating to bank robbery and terrorism. 

No evidence is ever produced to prove that those wearing the garment cause any harm. It is enough to merely state it, while associating the clothing with “alien” groups, whether they originate from former French colonies in North Africa or are refugees escaping countries torn to pieces by wars prosecuted by Western armed forces.  

There were of course cases of husbands forcing their spouses to cover up – domestic abuse is sadly all too common in every type of household – but there was already plenty of legislation allowing police to deal with such crimes without recourse to pillorying Muslims.

Now, rather than being part of the Islamophobic onslaught that both right and left sides of the French political spectrum collaborated in, face masks are meant to signify safety and unity. 

The fines being introduced to force usage will certainly be concentrated on poor commuters –including cleaners and manual workers – travelling into cities from the estates where most Muslims live. These are the areas where complaints about police racism and brutality have multiplied during the coronavirus lockdown, as heavy-handed officers attack suspects, causing severe injury and fatalities. 

Three policemen in Beziers – a southern town run by a notoriously Islamophobic mayor – face criminal charges following the sudden death in custody of a father of three from an Arab Muslim background.

As the world adapts to living with the horror of Coronavirus, there have been plenty of commentators expressing hope that more tolerant societies might emerge out of the global crisis. 

If France’s contrasting approach to face mask wearers is anything to go by, the republic will not be one of these newly enlightened nations.

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