I have seen comments in the UK regarding the ban of burka in France which have surprised me, and seem to show a gross misunderstanding of the reasons behind it. I read that the French ban of burka meant that the French are very intolerant, and so on. The reason behind it is far away from that.
It goes back to the history of France and relies on the Law of Secularism (Loi sur la laïcité), dated 1905, much before Islam existed as a main religion in France. And this Law of Secularism itself was the result of a long standing fight between Catholics and anti-religious people, who eventually were the winners with the proclamation of that law. That fight broke out openly with the Revolution of 1789, where the people of France fought against a corrupt aristocracy. Poor king Louis XVI paid the guilt of his ancestors, as it seems he was not corrupt and not a bad man.
Revolution was the result of the anger of the people, and of the influence of philosophers of 17th and 18th centuries, plus of freemasons (I am not making a judgement on them as I honestly do not know them, I am just saying their ideas and quite a few of their “brothers” had an active influence on the French Revolution and the men who ruled the country over the next 10 years). The next 10 years after the Revolution of 1789 were a period of turmoil and of chaos for the country. Many people were beheaded just because of appearing to oppose the then government, who could be changed and its leaders beheaded a few months later. I am sure that quite a few people who actively participated in the Revolution would not have done it, had they known what the next 25 years would mean for the country (chaos, then wars).
Anyway, Revolutionaries tried to destroy, not only the way the country was administered, not only aristocracy, but also the Catholic religion. They even for a while tried to push the people to worship a “Supreme Being” in a kind of republican religion (surprisingly, some words of the current French minister of Education, a few years ago – if not last year – evocated “a new religion based on the values transmitted by the Republic”).
For the next 80 years from the Revolution of 1789, France was going to experience many sorts of governments, chaos, wars, revolutions, until the lost war with Germany in 1870, where a Republic was proclaimed in France. Since 1870, France has been a republic, with the exception of the German invasion (1940 – 1944) when the state was a dictatorship under the control of Nazi Germany and was simply called the “French State”.
All over that period, there would be tendencies for restoring a catholic monarchy or on the opposite for going to a total atheist republic, with all the graduations of tendencies. And in fact, they have carried on existing since, less for monarchy, but still with the fight for or against religion, and moreover for or against Catholicism as the dominant religion of France. This fight carried on during end of 19th century and lead to a major victory of the secularist republicans against religion with the Law of Secularism of 1905, which stated that Catholicism was not any more the official religion of France, but just one religion amongst others, and that religion was a private matter, which was not to be present in any public place, and of course in any official building of the state (schools, universities, town halls, justice courts, administration, etc.). It was nevertheless accepted that current religious events which used to be performed in public (like processions) for centuries would be allowed to continue (probably by fear of anger of the people, which in 1905 was probably 90 to 95% Catholic in France).
To summarise, all living French people have been used to a state in which, since 1905, there has been a separation between the state and religion, in which religion is considered as a private matter.
For the last 20 to 30 years, you have been able to see more and more Muslim women wearing a veil in France, which their mothers in the 70’ would not wear, even though Muslims themselves. Muslims parents gradually demanded that young girls would go to school with an Islamic veil. With the past history of France as I just mentioned above, you can easily understand that this is in total contradiction with the Law of Secularism. Politicians tried to appease first and some schools accepted the veil, until it was discussed formally in the French parliament and it was decided one century after the Law of Secularism that wearing at school an Islamic veil was going against the Law of 1905.
The burka enters in the same situation, and again, after trying to appease, the law was remembered: people must not openly show their religion in public places in France.
Now, imagine the feelings of French people like me, who have been used to the Law of Secularism as applying to our daily life (only traditional specific religious public events held in public places due to centuries old tradition, no religion at school, no religion at university, no religion in any state buildings or administration), and then you see Muslim women wearing a typical Muslim veil in these places! This appears like an invasion and a gross offence to the culture of the people of the country.
Muslims must understand that the Law of Secularism of 1905 was against the Catholic Church, not against Islam.
My feeling (and I suppose the feeling of many of my compatriots) is that our ancestors did not put out of public places OUR religion, to leave the place to ANOTHER one.
A recent official report requested by French government offered to step back and allow Muslims girls to wear their Islamic veil at school. It was very badly received by a vast majority of the French, even by many members of the Socialist Party, which is currently governing France. This is not conservatism, this is just applying to others (Muslims) what we have been applying to ourselves (Catholics, or French people of Catholic culture anyway).