Why face masks could reignite France’s national identity debate

France banned public face coverings in 2010. But now everyone is wearing them to combat Covid-19

Until very recently, mask-wearing was seen mostly throughout Asian populations to combat city smog and prevent germs following the SARS outbreak of 2003. But now countries throughout Europe, Africa and the Americas are bearing masked faces as well, in an attempt to outsmart Covid-19.

France is among them. Wearing a mask in some public places was made compulsory on May 11th. Yet, despite general adherence to the new rules of déconfinement, face masks might have provoked France’s next national identity debate.

Face coverings have been forbidden in France since a law was passed in 2010 under the administration of former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy. The move was justified on the grounds that they are incompatible with French values of “liberty, equality and human dignity,” and “plac[e] those concerned in a situation of exclusion and inferiority.”

Perhaps the real reasons for the law, however, relate to immigration and cultural diversity. “Those concerned” were primarily Muslim women, and those concealing their faces were Muslim women wearing the burqa. Mr. Sarkozy said in 2009 that “the burqa is not welcome in France.” And just a few months before introducing the face-covering law he said:

For too long, we have seen attacks on laïcité [France’s policy of state-and-church separation], on gender equality, and discrimination. It should not be tolerated. The full veil goes against women’s dignity. The answer is to ban the full veil.

But now, with a public health crisis on its hands, France finds itself in a tricky situation. Face coverings are increasingly necessary due to Covid-19. More French citizens could soon be covering their faces than not.

Face coverings are indeed permitted under the 2010 law for health reasons. And France’s current state of emergency, declared by law on March 23rd, allows them on the grounds that the country finds itself with exceptional circumstances. Yet, even if the circumstances are exceptional, French leaders will find it hard to explain to France’s large Muslim population why a face mask does not undermine core values of equality, but a burqa does. Women wearing burqas instead of face masks during the Covid-19 outbreak will still face fines, even though they may be just as effective as other fabric face coverings in thwarting the spread of germs.

Unequal equality

A key argument of those against the burqa in public is that it is an overt display of one’s religion, and that this is incompatible with laïcité. The bedrock of French secularism is the 1905 law on the Separation of Churches and the State. It was introduced to “guarantee freedom of thought” and overall religious liberty.

Mr. Sarkozy’s ban on the full veil in 2010, however, represents a significant diversion from the original principles of laïcité, which was defined by individual freedom. He claimed that the move was to uphold “the equality and dignity of women”. (It is also worth mentioning that Mr. Sarkozy might not have uttered such a remark so easily if he were speaking today, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent, #balancetonporc.)

In this sense, whilst the 1905 law aimed purely to guarantee individual liberty, the 2010 law is among a handful of recent interpretations of laïcité which have sought to ban a particular religious expression. It was founded upon the argument that the free expression of some French Muslim women is in fact too free and potentially sectarian.

Viewed from this angle, laïcité becomes focused not upon facilitating the cultural individuality of French citizens, but a vague form of widespread public “equality” which lacks substance and, rather paradoxically, liberty. A statement by France’s National Advisory Commission on Human Rights outlined in 2010 that implementing laïcité often results in

two contradictory drifts. On one hand, some try to reduce the principle of laïcité to a simple principle of tolerance, justifying communitarian withdrawal. On the other hand, some seem to call for the rejection of any manifestation of religion in public today.

Pierre-Henri Prélot, Professor of Public Law at Université de Cergy-Pontoise near Paris, told me on Monday that “it is difficult to understand from the perspective of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, but the French are very attached to the prohibition law, and no politician will question it.” A focus on maintaining equality is in France’s constitutional DNA, and dates back to the Révolution of 1789. Yet some public figures have recently shown that a particular obsession with a politically imbued form of “equality” can make laïcité its own worst enemy.

Indeed, mask-wearing in the time of Covid-19 is technically legal. Highlighting the legality of the current legislation and its accommodation for health emergencies, Mr. Prélot said that “obviously this Covid episode will change absolutely nothing in the existing legislation.” Mr. Prélot did not, however, rule out seeing a situation whereby mask-wearing remained:

What is possible, on the other hand, is that the practice of wearing masks remains among a part of the French population, and that some Muslim women use the medical mask to hide their face, with religious motivations.

In a situation whereby medical face masks remained beyond France’s current state of emergency, leaders could find it hard to defend the credibility of the 2010 law. If French leaders’ primary concerns here involve ensuring equality and, as Mr. Prélot confirmed to me, “the democratic requirement that one’s face be visible in public”, what makes a burqa appear more threatening than the suddenly allowed medical face mask is the political narrative in which it is situated.

Indeed, health and state-of-emergency reasons make Covid-19 masks legitimate in legal terms. But Covid-19 has highlighted the politicisation of some face coverings which would otherwise be seen as completely benign.

Stéphanie-Hennette Vauchez, Professor of Public Law at Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense and the Institut universitaire de France, wrote in French daily Le Monde last month, saying:

The Covid-19 protective mask gives us a robust lesson in semiotics. […] The widespread acceptance of the mask as a tool for public health protection reveals that we are constantly constructing the meaning attributed to this or that form of facial veiling or concealment.

Macron must face up to the challenge

As a result, Covid-19 could raise questions in France’s ongoing national identity debate. Muslims comprised eight percent of France’s population in 2010. Twenty-first century laïcité should perhaps involve the balanced separation of private and public spheres instead, with original guarantees of individual difference.

However, current President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks have failed to provide clarity over the place of the Islamic veil in France. The country’s first centrist leader who has had to choose a side, at times reluctantly, said last year that “the Islamic veil in public places is none of my business.” Only a couple of weeks later, he followed up by saying: “Speaking of the veil, lots of young women who wear them are the daughters or granddaughters of immigrants. […] This is the failure of our model, which is combining with the crisis that Islam is seeing.”

Mr. Macron’s ambivalent and somewhat contradictory remarks do not inspire hope. Moreover, one third of voters supported the far-right Rassemblement national in the 2017 presidential election. With another présidentielle on the way in just under two years’ time, Mr. Macron, who is already losing popularity, will be reluctant to make a stand for heightened religious freedoms and reduce the stigma around burqas.

RN, led by Marine Le Pen, would almost certainly paint such a decision as a grave danger to a selective and supposedly sacrosanct form of French national identity. The last thing Macron needs, as he wishes to stay in power, is to have conservatives who supported him in 2017 move further right to Les Républicains, weakening him in the face of Mrs. Le Pen. Well-known politician Gérard Collomb, the current mayor of Lyon who is up for re-election at the end of the month, announced an alliance with Les Républicains just a few days ago, constituting a major blow to Mr. Macron and leaving his centrist party, La République en Marche, with no candidate.

Mr. Macron has the power to make a change following the Covid-19 mask absurdity, yet party politics will probably prevent one. France’s national motto is “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. But a politically motivated fight for too much “égalité” threatens the other two values of “liberté” and “fraternité” upon which the country was founded 200 years ago.

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