Islamophobia in Europe By Gwynne Dye - Friday, March 11, 2011

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FROM the beginning of next month, it will be illegal for a Muslim woman in France to wear a full-face veil (niqab) in any public place. An opinion poll last week suggested that Marine LePen, the new leader of the far-right National Front, could win the first round of next year`s presidential elections in France. These two facts are not unconnected.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is in a panic as the National Front gains in the polls, for his own core vote is also on the right. He has responded by ordering a nationwide debate on Islam`s place in secular France, and he has made it quite clear which side he is on: he wants no minarets in France, he tells journalists, and no halal food in school canteens. But the new anti-niqab law is the centre-piece of his strategy.
It is a solution to a problem that does not exist. There are around five million Muslims in France, about eight per cent of the population, but only a couple of hundred Muslim Frenchwomen wear the niqab in public. They probably shouldn`t drive, since all that paraphernalia severely restricts their field of vision, but in what sense is their occasional presence in public spaces a threat to society?
In fact, there are probably more British women wearing niqab in my small patch of London than there are French women wearing niqab in the entire country. In Camden Town, I see them in the supermarket, on the bus, in the street — and when I overhear them talking to their husbands or their kids, I notice that most of them have London accents.
That`s because most of the niqab-wearers are not immigrants. They are the British-born daughters of immigrants, and the fact that they now appear in public wearing this extreme garb — which was not normally worn by women back in Pakistan, or Algeria, or wherever their parents came from — is part of the crisis that always affects second-generation immigrants everywhere.
The men of the conservative older generation are horrified as their daughters absorb the values of the larger society around them, and try desperately to isolate them from those influences. It was a losing battle for Italian and Jewish fathers in New York a hundred years ago, and it`s a losing battle for Algerian and Indian fathers in London and Paris now.
But these things take time to work out, and in the meantime a tiny minority of British Muslim women wear niqabs, and an even tinier minority of Muslim Frenchwomen. So why would a French government ban women wearing niqab from taking a bus, entering a shop, or even just walking down the street, on pain of a 150-euro ($200) fine?
The right is in the ascendant in French politics, and this has unleashed a wave of panic-mongering over “multiculturalism.” Assimilation of second- and third-generation immigrants is actually proceeding at the normal pace, but in the midst of the process it is possible to believe that the cultural turmoil is leading to a permanently divided society. Most people on the right do believe that.
Whoever can more convincingly claim to have the solution for this imaginary problem wins the right-wing vote, and the National Front is drawing ahead of Sarkozy`s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front came second in the 2002 presidential election; under the leadership of his daughter Marine Le Pen it could do even better.

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