Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Right of Religious Expression and Political Life.

As a follow-up on one of our previous posts - as to whether a woman with a headscarf should be an acceptable candidate in a French election, the French feminist association Ni Pute,s Ni Soumises (which translates as "neither a whore nor a doormat.") has a clear answer : they have actually decided to file a suit against the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for running a candidate who wears a scarf over her head. A suit! Seriously?

«Il n’est pas question d’arborer un symbole religieux alors qu’on a, en tant qu’élue, une obligation de neutralité et de réserve», a-t-elle invoqué hier, dénonçant à l’AFP une «attitude antiféministe, antilaïque et antirépublicaine».

"Wearing a religious signs is out of the question since as an elected official you have the duty of neutrality" claimed Sihem Habchi, the president of the feminist association, adding that it is "antisecular, antifeminist, and antirepublican"

That's all very nice, but Ms Habchi seems to forget that the French Republic did not always have problems with elected officials wearing religious clothes.
In 1946, l'Abbé Pierre - a French catholic priest who became famous in France - was elected deputy for Murthe-et-Mosell in the National Assembly as a member of the Popular Republican Movement (MRP). He took his seat in French National Assembly wearing his cassock. Was his duty of neutrality questioned? No, because he was a resistant and man of integrity.

Of course Ms Habchi's views are vastly shared by the French political elite. But this fear of a loss of partiality is a sham. The only way to make sure that an elected official is being fair and neutral is public scrutiny. Isn't it better then that the public should be let know of a candidate's religious views? It is a question of transparency.
Laicité means tolerating others, including other forms of religious faiths and expressions, while according preference to none, and so I can only agree with Arthur Goldhammer and this definition of secularism.

Voting for a woman wearing the Islamic scarf may also teach people, including voters, tolerance towards people of faiths.

Finally and more importantly, a citizen's right to religious expression should not be granted at the expense of her right to be part of the political life of her country. There is no moral or legal basis for such discrimination and it's about time the French political elite should start thinking things over and move on from the old war between the Republic and religion.


bartleby said...

Firstly, what is a “voile islamique”? I thought France had gone over this question more thoroughly in recent times. In the case of the candidate in question, it’s a scarf covering her hair, not veiling her face. Is this an “atteinte à la pudeur”? Are we going to ban hats next?

Secondly, I’m forced to conclude you’re right that there are no legal grounds for barring the candidate, since her detractors appeal to vague principles rather than law. Is this a uniquely French tradition, a heritage of Montaigne, who argued that judges should base their decisions on common sense when written law was not up to the job?

Thirdly, there’s something disingenuous about claiming candidates should be “neutral”. Neutral about what? Shouldn’t they be defending their vision of society (however weird), and shouldn’t voters be entitled to judge the candidate as a whole person (admittedly tricky with the system of electoral lists)?

The entire point of democracy is to let the people choose their representatives. Let this candidate stand, it’ll be interesting to see what happens, either way.

Ultimately, the French left is trying to shut the farmhouse door after the horse has bolted. You can’t wish Islam out of France by forbidding its visible manifestations.

Jerome, said...

Thanks a lot Bartleby. It is good to see that someone else out there is also outraged! Phew!

Anonymous said...

Let's keep in mind that in 1946 the great majority of French people were parcticing catholics that all the priests wore only cassocks in and out of the church so seeing l'Abbé Pierre dressed in civilian clothes even into the French National Assembly was not surprising.
What is expected from politicians is they do their job whatever their religion, to attract firms and preserve employment, to develop education, transports, culture... taking into account national or local contexts as religious diversities so that communities can live together or at least side by side, isn't it ?