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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.