France (according to the French) invented human rights. While the US has the Declaration of Independence –we merely declared our independence from the yoke of the British crown. In contrast, France’s revolution was crowned and enthroned by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
These days, instead of declaring what rights the Citizens of France enjoy, President Sarkozy wants to ban full body veils that hide the face of the wearer. French lawmakers have already outlawed head coverings in French public schools. Efforts to ban the head coverings began in earnest when last spring a woman wearing a niqab was cited for driving with an obstructed view that endangered other drivers. Instead of meekly paying the $30 fine, the woman called a press conference claiming that the fine violated her human rights. Her husband stood gallantly by her side, proudly supporting her defense of Islam, her defense of the right of French women to wear full-body veils and also her defense of Islamic men’s right to insist that the women in their families wear such veils. Apparently, this woman demanding her human right to wear the full body veil created a great deal of national ambivalence. Which is more French – defense of human rights or the secular republic?
Here in the United States, we faced a similar existential crisis when Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law a bill that requires individuals in the state to produce proof of their legal immigration status when asked to do so by any law enforcement officer. Our own history is based on defiance of imperial power and the right to privacy from the over-reaching hand of authority. Our current concern about the encroachment of the Federal Government can be traced directly to King George III and his Red Coats’ brutish exploitation of our Colonial forefathers. When I first heard accounts of the new Arizona law, I bristled at the brutishness of the Arizona State Government, outraged at how the law subverts our constitutional right of freedom from unlawful search and seizure, enshrined in the 4th Amendment. I rolled my eyes and huffed at those closed minded individuals who fear the stranger and complain about “those people” who don’t share our “American” values as they trampled on our Constitution – what hypocrites!
Compare that with the reaction that I had to the French naturalized citizen who vigorously defended his wife’s “right” to wear the niqab: How dare he? In addition to his wife, a French national who adopted the niqab, he had three additional wives in concurrence with Islamic law with whom he fathered no less than twelve children. Each of his “wives” was receiving state benefits provided to single mothers and their children. Again I bristled with outrage! How dare he move to France, take advantage of the generous benefits and insist that French culture bend to his customs – the French government certainly had the right to protect their culture and insist that their laws are not manipulated and exploited by “those people”…..Then it hit me on the head - I sounded just like the supporters of the Arizona law that blamed Mexican immigrants for coming to the United States to take advantage of our (not nearly as generous) benefits.
Certainly the two situations are not entirely comparable, but both highlight the difficult and uneasy balance between the essence of our respective nations and the interconnected world of the 21st Century. We shall see by summer’s end where in the balance both nations lay…