Wednesday, July 14, 2010

14 July 1789: Storming of the Bastille. 2010: No revolution, but plenty of controversy

Given that I posted at length for the past two years on this most sacred of holidays—despite abandoning his youthful Jacobinism, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel toasted the occasion with a glass of wine throughout his life—I thought that I would today write more about this year's holiday than the history.

It actually turned out to be an interesting occasion in France, marked by controversy of several kinds.

Even the famed annual parade was different.  This year, France tried to break with tradition by inviting heads of state from 12 African countries, and troops from 13, to take part. President Nicholas Sarkozy declared, "It is a blood tie that we are celebrating, the tie born of African troops' contribution to the defence and liberation of France" in World War II as well as half a century of African independence.  Critics variously charged that the event was a thinly veiled exercise in colonial nostalgia, or that it in practice celebrated and cemented corrupt ties between the metropole and former colonies, and possibly even honored war criminals among the guests.

To add insult to injury, it literally rained on the parade—and the new national French website crashed within minutes of launch.

And, only the day before, the French National Assembly voted, by an an apparently overwhelming majority of 335-1, to ban the burqa. I say, "apparently," because the parties of the opposition and the left, although opposed to the wearing of the garment, declined to participate. The caster of the lone opposition vote explained it on the grounds that feared a "slide into a totalitarian society."

Under the proposed legislation—which would not become official until 2011, assuming it is approved by the Senate in September and passes muster with the Council of State and European Council of Human Rights—women convicted of violations could be fined 150 Euros or forced to take a citizenship class, while men convicted of forcing women to wear the garment could face penalties of a 30,000-Euro fine and a year in jail.

The vote may be part of a continental reaction against Islam, but as the Spiegel pointed out, the measure was clearly intended as a symbolic rather than practical gesture:  "The French Interior Ministry estimates that, at most, 2,000 women in France wear the burqa or the niqab out of a total population of 5 or 6 million Muslims. In total, it is estimated it will affect only 0.003 percent of the entire French population."

I recall discussing an earlier proposal for a headscarf ban with French friends of various ages and political persuasions, and I was surprised that they all agreed with it and each other.  Whereas I, as an American, saw the veil is a matter of civil or human rights, a form of personal expression and choice with which the state under most circumstances had no right to interfere, they saw the ban as a necessary affirmation of France's culture of secularism (this, despite the fact that, in France, religious communities are tied to even this most secular  state in ways that in the US, with our First Amendment, would be unthinkable). This experience, it turns out, reflects a general divergence in attitudes between Europeans and Americans.  A few days before the French vote, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, writing in the New York Times, called the proposed bans of the burqa in Europe unworthy of liberal democracies. Rigorously scrutinizing five characteristic arguments in favor of the ban, she concluded, "We don’t even need to reach the delicate issue of religiously grounded accommodation to see that they are utterly unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty. Equal respect for conscience requires us to reject them."

Through much of the nineteenth century, France struggled to resolve the conflicting views over monarchy vs. republic and the proper role of church and state. New issues arise but sometimes, old lessons are apposite.  As the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre said in the debate on the eligibility of the Jews for citizenship in 1789:
The law cannot affect the religion of a man. It can take no hold over his soul; it can only affect his actions, and it must protect those actions when they do no harm to society.  God wanted us to reach agreement among ourselves on issues of morality, and he has permitted us to make moral laws, but he has given to no one the right to legislate dogmas and to rule over [religious] conscience.  So leave man's conscience free, that sentiments or thoughts guided in one manner or another towards the heavens will not be crimes that society punishes by the loss of social rights.  Or else create a national religion, arm yourself with a sword, and tear up your Declaration of Rights.
I like a big international military parade as much as the next person (well, probably more than some around here; I've been in Paris on 14 July, so I can't help it).  However, Hegel's method of celebration has the advantage of being personalized,  time-tested, eco-friendly, and safe. It's one of those things that you actually can try in your own home.  I highly recommend it.  Cheers.


• read the 2008 post
• read the 2009 post

update: added video from

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