How the Dreyfus Affair Explains Sarkozy's Burqa Ban

Militant secularism has a long, troubled history in France, from paranoia over nun's wimples to the Dreyfusard anti-Jesuit campaigns. Where will it end?

France is once again beset by the politics of the veil. After a 2004 ban on "all conspicuous" religious symbols in French state schools -- a measure that barred the wearing of crucifixes, Sikh turbans, and Jewish skullcaps but was clearly targeted at headscarf-wearing Muslims -- President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken it a step further.

Now he is pressing for a total ban on the public wearing of the full veil, or burqa, by Muslim women, framing the legislation in terms of national identity: "[The burqa] will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic," he said last year. The veil made women "prisoners behind netting" and "is not the idea the French republic has of women's dignity."

Indeed, the debate has a long history in France and is not merely a product of the right, though Sarkozy's opponents denounce it as a nakedly political attempt to attract anti-immigrant support. A powerful, and sometimes irrational, fear of religious influence -- once  Catholic, now Muslim -- has long been a part of French society, through the anti-clerical campaigns of the 19th century and the anti-Jesuit paranoia of the Dreyfus affair. It's impossible to understand the burqa debate without understanding the nature of the polemics that shaped it.

Anti-clerical sentiment became a major force in French political life in the 18th century, when philosophers attacked the Catholic Church as an enemy of the Enlightenment and a supporter of the oppressive monarchical government. Many of the early debates centered around women's bodies and freedoms, with religion depicted as attacking society's weakest and most vulnerable members. In La Religieuse (The Nun), Denis Diderot's 1796 novel, a young innocent, Suzanne, is unscrupulously pressed into taking the veil and then subjected to the sexual advances and moral perfidy of her superiors. In the work, the veil is a symbol of imprisonment, darkness, and unbridled, corrupt power. As historian Caroline Ford has shown, "forced claustration" became a legal cause célèbre in the 19th century, as lawyers denounced the loss of women's "civil personality" when they entered convents.

Anti-clerical campaigners condemned nuns' habits in much the same way that today's commentators rail against the full veil as the ultimate symbol of sexual and political oppression. The 19th century in France saw a massive growth in the numbers of women entering orders, and a corresponding increase in the number of wimples that distinguished their distinctive vocations. Nuns' habits were denounced as outward proof of the church's ability to enforce an unnatural spiritual and physical discipline on victimized women. Even today the occasional commentator acknowledges that the Carmelites and Clarisses Sisters, both contemplative orders, impose a strict confinement on their nuns and require a costume little different from the burqa.

Behind the fantasy of the victimized nun was the specter of the Svengali-like manipulating priest -- one that closely parallels today's fears over the power of radical imams. In his best-selling 1845 polemic Du prêtre, de la femme et de la famille, the 19th-century historian Jules Michelet argued that priests, and especially Jesuits, got between husband and wife to turn women away from the emancipation that Republicanism offered. Many mainstream French feminists in the 1880s and 1890s even opposed giving women the vote on the grounds they would cast their ballot as their confessors told them.


It was around this time that the concept of "laïcité" gained strength as a militant form of secularism that allowed freedom of religious conscience and worship as long as they were private and discreet. The new Third Republic promoted laïcité to fend off reactionary political and religious ideologies and to encourage allegiance to the regime -- important at a time when France was the only major country in Europe that was not a monarchy. In the 1870s and 1880s, as part of the struggle for laïcité, the government removed crucifixes from the nation's classrooms and guaranteed free secular primary education for everyone.

The Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s only strengthened the Republican commitment to secularism. Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army captain of Jewish descent, was wrongly convicted of treason and sent into exile. The trauma of the Affair, which dragged on for years as Dreyfus was reconvicted in 1899 and only finally exonerated in 1906, split the political class in two and severely damaged France's international reputation. Dreyfus's reconviction was carried out by a military court in what was seen by his allies as a clerico-military conspiracy. The Dreyfusards blamed the Catholic elite, particularly the aristocratic Jesuit priest Stanislas du Lac. Du Lac not only had an entree into the highest levels of the Catholic elite, he also presided over the Lycée Ste Geneviève, which channeled many of its pupils into the army officer corps. Many Dreyfusards argued that it was du Lac's minions who orchestrated the military conspiracy that kept the innocent Jewish captain in solitary confinement on Devil's Island -- an accusation with little factual support.

In the aftermath, activists who had worked to free him sought their revenge against the clerical enemy, with some extremists thinking nothing of blacklisting military officers simply because they went to Mass. In 1905, laïcité was embodied in law through the formal separation of church and state. More recently, it has served as a justification for the 2004 headscarf ban and the current campaign against the full veil.

The fears of today are built on those of the past, the Catholic enemy now superseded by the Islamic menace. This is not to suggest that religious institutions are faultless: The recent revelations about child abuse within the Catholic Church show that secrecy and complicity can indeed encourage the worst kinds of exploitation. And during the Dreyfus Affair, one of the main sources of anti-Semitic invective was La Croix, a newspaper run by the Assumptionist order, which for years ran stories of Jewish financial dishonesty, treachery, and ritual murder.

But there is no doubt that, just as the anti-clerical fury back then sometimes also targeted innocent Catholics, the focus on the full veil now heightens the polemical temperature by demonizing Muslims as oppressors of women. In their opposition to the veil, certain feminists have become allied to nationalism. Laïcité, which originated in a wish to defend French liberties from religious fanaticism, now risks undermining those liberties by criminalizing the tiny minority of Muslim women in France for what they wear.



Is Talking to Beijing About Human Rights a Waste of Time?

Why Obama's new meetings with China should only be the beginning.

Why aren't human rights activists who work on China more enthusiastic about the upcoming meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials on the critical topic of human rights? The discussions, to begin in Washington on May 13, are the first human rights dialogue between the two countries since May 2008 and the first to be hosted by President Barack Obama's administration. Yet expectations that the meetings will produce any meaningful change, or even a clear set of goals, are remarkably low.

It's of course natural to have low hopes for a human rights dialogue with China, given how bad its record on the issue is. In the last month alone, we've observed two important nongovernmental organizations paralyzed by government interference. The Women's Legal Research and Services Center, China's leading women's legal rights organization, was abruptly deregistered by Beijing University, leaving it in legal limbo. And Wan Yanhai, one of China's most prominent HIV/AIDS activists, went into self-exile in the United States last weekend, stating sensibly enough, "It was no fun waiting to be attacked by government agencies all the time."

As part of a continuing attack on rights lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei joined the growing ranks of lawyers stripped of their licenses for daring to take on "sensitive" cases, further emasculating China's fledgling "rights protection" movement. And Gao Zhisheng, another courageous activist who chose to take the government at its word and tried to make use of the legal system to redress common grievances, has been disappeared -- for a second time.

But the problem isn't just China -- it's also the way the talks are structured. The dialogue process lacks meaningful benchmarks for progress, or consequences for failing to improve the situation. The Chinese government doesn't send representatives with appropriate authority or experience to participate meaningfully in the dialogues, neither does it come with any concrete plans for reform. Chinese officials often spend their visit just trying to run out the clock.


Given how ineffective the dialogues have been -- and how ineffective similar talks held by other countries with China have also been -- they also create a risk of excluding other potentially more fruitful avenues for human rights discussion, such as having cabinet members raise an issue or case, or having senior government officials speak publicly and in more detail about those discussions. The current talks may also be used as an excuse for sidelining human rights from important talks that we know the Chinese government does care about, such as the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

However, assuming that the dialogues will continue and assuming that the Chinese government will continue to filibuster and avoid real issues, how should the Obama administration use the sessions to its best advantage in bringing about real improvements for the Chinese people?

First, the administration should visibly and publicly commit to raising human rights issues outside the dialogue. I can already hear the Obama administration's rebuttal: "We regularly raise human rights issues at the highest levels, and in frank terms." But if the private language matches the public rhetoric, it's hardly the kind of precise, concrete questioning the Chinese government needs to hear. We need to hear agencies other than the State Department talk to their Chinese counterparts about human rights issues. For example, the agencies sponsoring rule-of-law projects in China should speak out publicly about China's practice of disbarring lawyers, which makes a mockery of these rule of law initiatives.

If the administration wants to claim a "whole of government" approach to promoting human rights in China, diverse officials and agencies must better coordinate their outreach. In July 2009, the Commerce Department and the U.S. trade representative (USTR) publicly opposed the Chinese government's proposal to mandate filtering software on all personal computers. The Commerce Department and the USTR described the software not only as a barrier to trade, but also as a threat to the right to expression. Such assessments should be a regular feature of U.S. diplomacy with China.

Second, the administration must do a better job outside these talks of not undermining its stated commitment to human rights. We're glad not to have heard anything akin to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's February 2009 comments that human rights "can't interfere" in the bilateral relationship, but we continue to hear too many public comments from U.S. officials about the United States and China "agreeing to disagree" on human rights. Comments like this make it easy for the Chinese government to choose the rhetoric that it prefers, and, after all, if the administration does go into these exercises with no expectation of rapprochement, why have a dialogue at all?

Finally, the United States can -- and definitely should -- do a better job of standing publicly on key human rights issues with other like-minded countries. There have been a few significant moments of solidarity, particularly the image of a few dozen staff members from rights-supporting embassies in Beijing standing on courthouse steps awaiting verdicts handed down to prominent government critics.

Too often the United States and the dozen other countries that conduct human rights dialogues with the Chinese government opt not to act together, citing the Chinese government's intense dislike of being "ganged up on" by the West. But these governments, which often express virtually identical views on identical topics to the Chinese government in private, need to stand together in public, if for no other reason than to show the stark differences between their systems and Beijing's. Human rights standards are universal, and sometimes solidarity -- and diplomacy -- needs to be, too.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES: The Beijing courthouse where leading Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was sentenced in Dec. to 11 years in jail on subversion charges.