Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Legal Metaphysics of the Burqa

Philippe Bilger is an intelligent man, an elegant if often euphuistic writer, and, as an avocat général près de la Cour d'appel de Paris, a man well-versed in French law. His analysis of the Conseil d'État's decision to deny citizenship to a French salafiste is therefore all the more astonishing for its frank embrace of metaphysics and what I can only call male phantasms. I quote the concluding passage in full:

Ce n'est pas seulement par rapport à une conception occidentale de la femme qu'une épouse ainsi murée crée un infini dommage. C'est par rapport à l'humain tout court. Il convient d'affronter clairement que l'humanité véritable, quelle que soit l'infinie diversité de ce qui la compose, se définit d'abord par ce qu'on pourrait nommer l'offrande d'un visage à son prochain. Haineux ou amical, il vient, dans sa nudité et sa pureté, porter l'emblème de ce qu'il y a là un homme ou une femme, un homme et une femme et que le lien le plus éclatant entre les sexes est précisément cette existence à visage découvert, au sens propre.

Il y a donc plus qu'une intolérable soumission dont au demeurant Faiza M. serait victime. Il y a cette donnée qu'un tel couple imposant à la vue de tous une femme ainsi dissimulée transgresse ce qui constitue le fondement d'une société civilisée : que la liberté n'a pas de sens si elle enterre physiquement l'un, de son vivant, quand l'autre bénéficie de la lumière. J'ajoute que la preuve la plus significative de ce que j'avance résulte du malaise qu'autrui éprouve devant une telle dénaturation de l'humain. Qui n'a ressenti, non seulement de l'étrangeté mais de la répulsion devant une négation aussi construite et consentie de la transparence du visage, devant la prison que le corps s'était constitué lui-même au milieu de la liberté, belle ou laide, de tous les autres ? Puis-je dire que plus d'une fois, rêvant de remplacer la nuit par le jour, j'ai eu envie d'arracher et de montrer ?

C'est un cas d'école que cette burqa. Rien ne mérite plus d'être expliqué et justifié que ce qui nous semble aller de soi. Il faut s'acharner à montrer que le particulier des croyances ne nous importe que dans la mesure où l'universel est trahi, où il dénature l'universel. Le Conseil d'Etat a rendu l'arrêt qui convenait.

Au fond, contre toutes les burqas du monde, d'abord la beauté et l'humanité de visages nus.

Denaturation, strangeness, repulsion, betrayal of the universal. I find this flabbergasting in its excess.

Arbitrariness and Assimilation

Now that the Conseil d'État has declared that assimilation to French values requires a certain moderation in religious practice as well as acceptance of the principle of equality of the sexes, prefects are free, under a recently instituted policy revision, to deny applications for citizenship on their own arbitrary appreciation of the candidate's "degree of assimilation." This judgment is based on entretiens d'assimilation at the prefectoral level. Immigration expert Patrick Weil is critical of the resulting arbitrariness of the decision. The principle of equality is thus on the one hand extolled, on the other hand ignored in the actual practice of judging whether candidates meet the expected criteria.

The Union for the Mediterranean

Born l'Union méditerranéenne, rebaptized l'Union pour la Méditerranée (UPM--not to be confused with UMP :)), das Ding an sich has now at last been summoned into existence with Parisian forceps and force of will. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? An indifferent thing? Only time will tell. It would be easy enough to dismiss it as the product of a fantasy of Henri Guaino, but one might have said the same thing about the European fantasy of Jean Monnet and a few others. Yet there is something compelling in the vision, as there was in the vision of Europe, if only it can be made to work (and does Europe work? the jury is perhaps still out--as Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, "it is too soon to know how it turned out").

In any case, Eric Le Boucher reminds us of some pertinent facts: the global economy is organizing itself in "orange slices": there is an Asian axis, a North-South-Central American axis, and a Europe-Africa-Asia Minor axis. This is not at all the clash of civilizations, the supposedly ineluctable consequence of culture, religion, and mentality, but rather the usual systole and diastole of economic growth, with a metropole and hinterland, vast demographic and geographic and wage disparities, and therefore marked differences in the relative prices of land and labor.

Both within and between these slices of the globe there are predictable and regular flows of goods, resources, people, and ideas. Europe's "South" has a population of 265 million, 1/3 of which is below the age of 15, and this population is expected to grow by a quarter over the next 25 years. The only effective way to control the northward migration of people is to encourage development in the South, to invest and to educate. If the UPM can facilitate this, it will have served a purpose long after the photographs of Syrians and Lebanese sitting down together at the same table have been forgotten (but Sarkozy deserves credit for having achieved at least this).

The UPM may not yet have a grand project, but it is at least a set of initials, un sigle that may serve to keep an image of the South vivid in the mind of the North as something other than a Quai Branly full of masks or an unstanchable source of refugees dying of thirst as they land, extenuated, on Europe's southern shores.