BOSTON — The recent French parliamentary committee report recommending a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils raises critical questions not just for French politicians and society at large, but for democracies throughout the world.
How a state embraces or rejects diversity and difference within its borders speaks to the strength of its democratic principles and values. Countries around the world are increasingly diverse in their religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural composition. Among the 194 sovereign states, there are about 4,000 ethno-cultural entities; 40 percent of states have five or more such groups; less than a third have ethnic majorities. This new demographic demands new approaches to creating and maintaining shared, cohesive and inclusive societies, where all citizens feel safe and at home.
The recent parliamentary committee report calls for a ban on face veils in all public spaces in France: post offices, universities, hospitals, public transport and state-owned premises. President Sarkozy quickly endorsed the committee’s recommendations, and they are expected go before parliament in the spring. Should the partial-ban be approved by parliament, France’s restrictions on the veil would be the most stringent in all of Europe and an affront to their 5-million strong Muslim minority, the largest Muslim population in Europe. In the time before the parliament votes on these recommendations, a national-level dialogue on identity, social cohesion, and the principles of democracy should take place.
The process leading up to the formation of the committee, the recommendations themselves, and now the support from the highest levels of French government are based on the belief that the veils are contrary to French principles of secularism and equality. Yet why not consider that it is possible to support values of diversity and egalitarianism at the same time? Or that creating space for diverse identities to coexist and thrive in France, although challenging, creates opportunity for a stronger, more robust common French identity? And instead of viewing the diversity represented by women in face veils as a threat to French values, why not embrace and promote that diversity for the richness it contributes to French society?
France’s commitment to secularism is long-standing, and is consistent with the liberal democratic principle that government should not associate itself with the religious values of any one group of its citizens. At the same time, a democratic society cannot repress the cultural or religious identity of any of its citizens or marginalize its minority groups through social or economic policies or through practices that say “you are not welcome here” without weakening the vibrancy, health and security of its democratic principles.
France is not alone in facing the challenges brought to its secular and democratic state through increased diversity. Indeed, governments from Ghana to Malaysia to Britain, Japan, and the United States and Suriname wrestle with coexistence issues such as the dimensions of citizenship, constitutional and political designs that reflect the diversity within state borders, language and minority rights, appropriate education systems, equality and cultural issues, and democratic participation. A state that creates room at the national level for reflection and dialogue on these issues and invites participation from all quarters will help itself create a society that is shared by all its citizens.
Ours is a globalized world characterized by increased diversity, a rise in migration, and the consolidation of multi-ethnic states. Democratic processes and institutions need to effectively safeguard equality, embrace diversity and foster interdependence, all of which contribute to coexistence at the national and communal levels. France can be a leader in creating a cohesive society shared by all its citizens, one in which there is appreciation and respect for the diversity within the country, or it can run from the difference and reject meaningful coexistence. The coming months will provide a test of the true nature of France.
Jessica Berns is director of the Coexistence International Program at Brandeis University.