Nicolas Sarkozy needs to shut the fuck up. The disgraced former French president is hoping he can win power back in 2017 the way he first won election to the top office a decade ago: by riding the wave of xenophobia against Muslims and immigrants.
Having recently made a formal announcement he’ll be running for president again next spring, Sarkozy unofficially launched his campaign this week by weighing in on France’s burkini ban in the most unhelpful way possible, directly linking Muslim women with “radical Islam.”
In a TV interview Wednesday, Sarkozy called the burkini a “provocation,” as if the sartorial choices of Muslim women were somehow a show of solidarity with terrorism.
According to Le Monde, the ex-president warned, “If we do not put an end to it, the risk is that, in 10 years, young Muslim women who don’t wear the veil or the burkini will be singled out and will be under daily peer pressure.” (“Si nous n’y mettons pas un terme, le risque c’est que, dans 10 ans, les jeunes filles de confession musulmane qui ne porteront pas le voile ou le burkini seront montrées du doigt et seront sous la pression quotidienne de l’entourage.”) In this dystopian future conjured up by Sarkozy’s xenophobic imagination, all Muslim women in France are forced (or at least pressured) to dress a certain way to justify legislatively forcing all Muslim women in France today not to dress a certain way. Follow that logic.
Sarkozy talks as though the burkini can be equated with radical Islamism, though women in ISIS and Taliban territories aren’t sporting burkinis, given they are not allowed to publicly bathe. In reality, Sarkozy is the one engaging in deliberate provocation that seeks to demonize the most vulnerable members of French society — a dangerous game he’s played before. The implications, given the string of extremist attacks in France and the surge in support for the National Front, are even scarier this time around. He must not be allowed to succeed.
Sarkozy’s rise fuelled by racism
Sarkozy was interior minister when riots broke out in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 over the killing of two immigrant youth by French police. Sarkozy’s reaction today reflects how he responded to the riots then: by using racially charged language — calling immigrant youth “racaille,” meaning “scum” in English but a lot harsher in the French context — and stronger policing measures.
Sarkozy, of course, has no problems making deals with the Gulf monarchies, where the rights of women are hardly prioritized. Under his presidency, Qatar made huge investments in France, and he was in favour of the Qatari purchase of his favourite football club, Paris Saint-Germain. His double standards are that of the entire French establishment.
Last year, when the Saudi king went for vacation on a French beach, he not only cordoned off a public beach for his own entourage, but also requested that there be no female police officers among the security staff provided for the king by the French state. The government agreed and two female officers were removed from the beach.
It is easy to set aside your convictions when you need to sell arms and warships to Saudi Arabia. It is that much easier to impose your will on those whom you see as having no stake in your own society. In whipping up hysteria and legislating against the burkini, the French establishment is showing its moral cowardice and lack of simple human decency. Using armed policemen to undress a woman in public is not only humiliating for that woman, but also a shameful act for any country that calls itself civilized.
Other countries in Europe, as well as Canada, are more accommodating of the public display of religion. They have shown more ingenuity in accepting a Muslim presence in the public sphere, including inside state institutions. It’s a grotesque interpretation of secularism (or laïcité as the French call it, referring to the separation of church or mosque or synagogue and the state) to prohibit clothing associated with members of certain religious traditions in public spaces like the beach. By turning laicité into an ideology of moral governance, the French government is looking increasingly stagnant. In fact, the ban involves a lot more than just clothing. Laïcité has become a tool to attack Muslims and pressure them out of public view.
The problem is not with the women who wear the burkini, but with the society that finds itself threatened by a piece of swimwear.
The good news? Sarkozy’s not doing well in the polls, and may fail to win his bid to represent the “centre-right” in next year’s presidential elections. But regardless of his electoral fortunes, he’s playing a dangerous and racist game that will do real damage to Muslims and other marginalized people in France for years to come.