A ban on markers of difference

The general public in France sees the face-veil differently from French Muslims

The face-veil has played a political role in French society since the wearing of all "conspicuous" symbols of religion, including the hijab, was outlawed from schools in 2004. However, this debate has received new impetus in the past seven months, since President Sarkozy said that the face-veil, or niqab, was "unwelcome" in French society.

The French parliamentary panel tasked with informing policy on the matter yesterday recommended a partial ban on the niqab in all hospitals, schools, public transport and government offices. The report concluded that "the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic". It also wants women who cover their faces to be denied state services, including work visas, residency papers or citizenship.

A complete ban on the face-veil in public was pulled at the last minute, following a challenge from the Socialist opposition and concerns over the legality of such a move.

Presenting the report, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, said: "It is the symbol of the repression of women, and . . . of extremist fundamentalism."

However, the findings of the Muslim West Facts Project questions this claim. This collaborative research venture between the Coexist Foundation and Gallup, published as the Gallup Coexist Index 2009 at the end of last year, explores "attitudes and perceptions among Muslims and the general public in France, Germany and the United Kingdom about issues of coexistence, integration, values, identity and radicalisation".

Perhaps surprisingly for Accoyer, the report's findings do not corroborate his views.

With regard to "extremist fundamentalism", the report notes: "The general European populations surveyed are more likely to associate the hijab [sic] with religiosity than fanaticism, oppression, or being against women." Importantly, the general French population is more than three times as likely to associate fanaticism with the hijab than the French Muslim population.

Regarding the link between "repression of women" and the hijab, the views of the two communities differ by an even greater margin: 52 per cent of the general French population associate the hijab with repression, compared to 12 per cent of French Muslims.

First, it is important to note that there are differences between the hijab and alternative forms of veiling, as noted by Mehdi Hasan. The report can be rightly criticised for conflating the two. But there are more pressing points that need to be made.

Given the differences in attitude between the general and Muslim populations in France, the state should not be engaging in demonising and outlawing different forms of veiling. Rather, its resources should be invested in engaging with why such symbols and communal markers cause such consternation and discrepancies in attitude. As the report notes:

In terms of what religious signs and symbols are necessary to remove for minorities to be integrated, Gallup Poll findings show that the headscarf and face-veil strike the loudest chords among the general populations surveyed.

The removal of the face-veil from the public eye is not the way to reconcile issues of integration. Dialogue between and within different communities is the only way in which misconceptions and barriers to integration can be removed. Recognising the differences within and between communities, pluralising discussions and understanding the "other" are the steps to integration -- not wholesale bans on markers of difference.


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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.