“The burka is a prison, a strait-jacket,” Fadela Amara, the Minister for Urban Affairs and a longstanding women's rights campaigner, said yesterday. “It is not religious. It is the insignia of a totalitarian political project for sexual inequality.”
The court decision denying Faiza Mabchour, 32, French citizenship has drawn approval from both Left and Right, highlighting a rejection of Muslim customs that conflict with the values of the secular French republic.
“The affair of the burka”, as it has become known, began in late June when the Council of State, the highest civil court, endorsed a decision to refuse nationality to Ms Mabchour because her practices conflicted with French society and especially sexual equality.
Ms Mabchour, a French-speaker who lives in a southern Paris suburb, came to France in 2000 after marrying a Frenchman of North African background. They have three children, all French. At her husband's request she converted to Salafism, a hardline school of Islam that is strong in Saudi Arabia. She began wearing the dress that the French media call the burka, but which is strictly a niqab.
In the first ruling of its type Ms Mabchour's application was rejected because she had failed to integrate. Emmanuelle Prada-Bordenave, the state commissioner who decided the appeal, noted that Ms Mabchour had appeared for interviews “clothed from head to toe in the clothing of women from the Arabian peninsula, with a veil covering her hair, forehead and chin and a piece of cloth over her face. Her eyes could only be seen through a small slit.
“She lives virtually as a recluse, disconnected from French society. She has no concept of laïcité [the principle of the secular State] nor the right to vote. She lives in total subservience to the men in her family,” she added.
The decision was the latest episode in France's struggle to balance the laïcité principle with the religious practices of Europe's largest Muslim community.
It follows a popular 2005 ban on religious head-covering in state schools and rising concern over demands from some Muslims for sexual segregation in public swimming pools and sports grounds.
Ms Amara, who is one of the most outspoken members of the Government, said that she deplored all head-cover by Muslim women. “It's just a question of centimetres of fabric,” she said, describing both as symbols of oppression. The headscarf ban has proved highly popular, at least with non-Muslims and teachers.
Last May a judge in Lille caused an uproar when she annulled the marriage of a couple because the bride had falsely told her Muslim husband that she was a virgin. On orders from Mr Sarkozy, the State has appealed against that decision. The “burka case” is seen by some of Mr Sarkozy's opponents as a reflection of his hardline policies over immigration as Interior Minister and then President.
Leaders of France's Muslim establishment played down the ruling and said they feared that it would stir anti-Muslim feeling. “The refusal of nationality is due to lack of integration,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of Muslims.