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.