To emphasize the national imperative, President Emmanuel Macron appeared at a school last week wearing a navy mask embellished with the blue, white and red stripes of the French flag. Face coverings, the design seemed to suggest, are fused to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
All this has been accepted with little commentary or controversy. A recent BFMTV poll found that 94 percent of people in France supported wearing masks. That France has reported more than 26,000 coronavirus deaths no doubt contributes to that acceptance.
But many Muslims, religious freedom advocates and scholars see a great deal of irony in a society that has made such a virtue of uncovered faces suddenly requiring faces to be covered.
“If you are Muslim and you hide your face for religious reasons, you are liable to a fine and a citizenship course where you will be taught what it is to be ‘a good citizen,’ ” said Fatima Khemilat, a fellow at the Political Science Institute of Aix-en-Provence. “But if you are a non-Muslim citizen in the pandemic, you are encouraged and forced as a ‘good citizen’ to adopt ‘barrier gestures’ to protect the national community.”
“We see this asymmetrical reading of the same behavior — covering the face, depending on the context and the person who performs it — as arbitrary at best, discriminatory at worst,” she said.
French law regulates Islamic face coverings in public spaces on the grounds that concealing one’s face violates fundamental values of the republic.
In 2004, the country banned headscarves in public schools, citing the religious neutrality of state institutions. In 2010, it outlawed the fully face-covering niqab and burqa everywhere in public, arguing that those garments threaten public safety and represent a rejection of a society of equal citizens.
“In free and democratic societies . . . no exchange between people, no social life is possible, in public space, without reciprocity of look and visibility: people meet and establish relationships with their faces uncovered,” declared a parliamentary study prepared during debate of the 2010 law, which took effect the following year.
“The concealment of the face in public space has the effect of breaking social ties,” the report continues. “It manifests the refusal of ‘living together.’ ”
France’s Interior Ministry confirmed to The Washington Post that the burqa ban will still apply during the covid-19 pandemic, when people are otherwise encouraged to cover their faces. A woman who wears a religious face covering will be “punished with the fine provided for second-class infractions,” the ministry said in a statement. The law imposes a fine of up to €150 ($165) and can require participation in a citizenship education class.
Given that the 2010 law permits face coverings for health reasons and other exemptions, “wearing a mask intended to prevent any risk of contagion by covid-19 does not constitute a criminal offense,” the ministry said.
That suggests that if an observant Muslim woman wanted to get on the Paris Metro, she would be required to remove her burqa and replace it with a mask.
Strictly speaking, the French government’s new rules on masks do not specify what counts as an acceptable mask. Fabric masks recently became available in French pharmacies. But earlier in the virus outbreak, when the government was reserving masks for health workers, people improvised with any number of clothing items, with some French women walking the streets of Paris with their faces covered with scarves.
Although the burqa has a clear religious significance, it also covers the nose and mouth and could be expected to slow the virus just as well as many homemade masks.
“Muslims see this irony very clearly,” said Karima Mondon, a high school teacher in the Lyon suburbs, who wears a headscarf but not a burqa. “Also, all the things they used to tell us were signs of ‘radicalization’ — such as people who don’t do the kiss — today have become signs of good public health practices.”
Following the October 2019 attack on the Paris police headquarters by an Islamist employee, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner delivered a controversial list of potential signs of radicalization to the French Parliament. Not doing “la bise,” the kiss on the cheek that many French and Europeans use to greet each other, was on his list.
Mondon noted that some Muslim women donned surgical masks as a kind of protest after the 2010 law was passed.
“I remember there were women who wore surgical masks back then to continue practicing what was important to them,” she said. “That didn’t even work, because clearly what was intended was a regulation of Islam, to eradicate the visibility of Muslim women in public space.”
That one type of face covering is seen as withdrawing from society and another has become a sign of civic duty reflects the contradictory ways France defines community and solidarity, political analysts and historians say.
“It’s not a hypocrisy, it’s a schizophrenia at the end,” said Olivier Roy, a French scholar of secularism and Islam. “Which is to say that it’s about the problem of Islam. If you cover your face for Islam, it’s not the republic. If you cover your face for a reason not to do with Islam, it’s acceptable.”
Public safety is the only other realm where the French government has objected to face coverings. For instance, during the “yellow vest” protests over inequality, some demonstrators wore bandannas, surgical masks or costume masks to protect themselves from tear gas or conceal their identities. After several weeks of violent protests, Parliament passed a law stipulating that wearing a mask at such gatherings could result in a one-year prison sentence and a 15,000 euro ($16,500) fine — far steeper than the burqa ban.
But requiring face coverings in public is new for France.
“The secular science versus religious Muslim dichotomy is operating so that nobody sees it as ironic or as a contradiction at all,” said Joan Wallach Scott, an American historian of France who has written extensively on the politics of the headscarf. “For those of us looking at it from the outside, the issue it raises is what it means to be part of a community.”
“Wearing some form of head covering means identifying with the rules and spirit of a community, and that’s clearly what masks do for a secular community like the French republic. We are now engaging in a rite of communal participation — for ‘vivre ensemble,’ to be with each other,” she said.
“But that’s also what the veil represents for the women who wear it: a commitment to the principles of communal solidarity.”
Khemilat, the political scientist, said that perhaps the requirement to wear a mask will give the rest of French society a glimpse of how it can feel to be a Muslim woman in a country that polices what can be worn and where.
“If this temporary situation was painful and difficult for us to live in because it hampered our freedom to come and go,” she said, “then imagine what the French women who wear the headscarf have been feeling for 10 years.”