The integral veil
A spectator was asked to leave a performance of La Traviata at the Bastille Opera House on October 3rd this year, because her face was covered with a veil. She was a tourist from one of the Arab states. She and her husband left without fuss, not even asking for their money back.
There was no policy in place to restrict access, and the woman had taken her seat in the front row normally. During the performance her veiled face was picked up by the security cameras, and noticed by members of the choir; it was they, mostly female chorists, who demanded that the woman be asked to leave. Since they had the law on their side, they got their way.
The law dates from 2010; it says that no one is allowed in a public place with their face covered, be it a balaclava, helmet or face veil. France was taken to the European Court of Human Rights over this, but the ECHR found in favour of France, because of the particular situation in France. French opinion is attached to laïcité, that is keeping religion strictly private, with freedom of belief but not freedom of public expression of that belief. All French are equal, and anything that might divide them is kept out of sight.
There are further arguments in favour of this law: the integral veil is not part of mainstream Islam, but of an extremist fundamentalist variant connected with anti-European jihad, so should be discouraged anyway. Feminists also protest against the integral veil, seen as a restriction on female liberty; it is this strand that led to the opera goer’s eviction.
Seen from England the episode seems peculiar, since there is no such law in England. In both countries religion has decayed and churches are nearly empty, but attitudes to religion are quite different. England had its anti-religion crusade such a long time ago that it doesn’t know it had one. It has had its own mild homegrown established state religion since Henry VIII; the Church of England is not part of an international religion, unlike Catholicism or Islam. Thanks to this, religion has been a harmless part of everyday life not worth abolishing. Churches are well kept, whereas French churches, unless they are fine examples of romanesque or gothic art, are semi-derelict through lack of funding.
France has had a war against Catholicism that lasted until its defeat in 1905, and the triumphal establishment of an atheist state, with an anti-Catholic establishment. Religion being out of sight is seen as a hotly contested achievement and now the only way to live. Muslims are expected to conform to this.
There is a little bit of disquiet about this anti-burqa law. The Bastille Opera authorities were not unanimous in their desire to expel the veiled woman, she and her husband had paid over 200 Euros each for their seats, and the Opera does not want to discourage foreign tourists.
The other disquiet is that the law cannot be enforced systematically. In predominantly Muslim areas, the police are unable to go in to perform arrests. A law that can’t be enforced is a bad law.
Martine Aubry, daughter of Jacques Delors, Mayor of Lille, ex leader of the Socialist Party and ex-minister of Labour, piloted the 35 hour week in 1998/2000 and defends it to this day.
She has not been in office under François Hollande’s government. She offered some ideas in an interview in the Journal du Dimanche of 19th October:
Since 1990 the French have paid a new tax called CSG, Contribution Sociale Généralisée; it was meant to be a contribution to social security, and generally an answer to the economic crisis. It is the only tax levied at source. All French workers liable to tax, that is half of earners, fill a tax return. The CSG is not as proportional as income tax: middle earners pay more proportionally than top earners. CSG is payable on all income, including from capital and from gambling.
Martine Aubry wants CSG to be combined with income tax, the whole being levied at source. This would give middle earners more money, and avoid enormous tax debts when personal circumstances change for the worse.
A new social-democracy
Aubry wants a return to a pre-Thatcher and Reagan society, against the Blair and Schroder new version of liberalism which pits aspirational employees against each other, and which has given up on full employment. The State, with trade unions (both employees and employers TUs), and associations must work to stand in the way of corporations imposing their will. The state must regulate globalisation. Already existing regulations must remain: Sunday rest, unemployment benefit, lois Auroux, the 35 hour week. Abolishing them would make things worse and would not create employment. Public service is a vital principle, as well as local political authority.
The 35 hour week has not been abolished by the right when they were in power and Aubry has found that in practice business is happy with it.
The lois Auroux of 1982 were inspired by a desire for industrial democracy, the idea that democracy is not just political, voting in general elections, but should also be present in the place of work; workers should have rights and the ability to exercise initiative individually and collectively in the work place.
Under these laws, workers have the right to discuss their conditions of work. The works committee is financed by a proportion of the wage bill. There is an annual obligation to negotiate wages, duration and organization of work; there is a hygiene, security and working conditions committee. The lowering of the age of retirement to 60 and a fifth week of paid holiday were also part of the lois Auroux.
Martine Aubry was part of the ministerial cabinet that piloted these laws.
Three main issues
Aubry sees three main issues that need tackling: the digital revolution, environment protection and inequality between regions. The digital revolution is a source both of new products and of a reduction in the number of jobs through automation. The inequality between regions is between the old industrial regions which have collapsed, and prosperous regions with newer industry.
According to Aubry, government policies, more tax and less public spending, have limited growth; this must change. 50% of firms in France say demand is too low. French firms which are exposed to international competition must be helped in order to be more competitive; this help must focus on research and development, innovation, training, organisation of work, investment in new technologies.
Tax incentives offered by the state must go exclusively to firms that invest and reinvest. Any lowering of taxes (as offered by Hollande) must be conditional on a firm wide agreement between employers and employees on competitiveness and training. There are two tax credits for firms today: one for competitiveness and one for research. They should be put together. Subjecting this tax allowance to these conditions would free up 20bn Euros.
This money should be used in government/local authority partnerships for local investment, especially in the building industry. It should be used for subsidized jobs for the young; they are not ideal, but they are essential.
The Duflot law must be acted on to encourage buy to let, rents must be kept under control, there must be more subsidy for housing; family legislation, e.g. child benefit, parental leave, tax credits for children, must be maintained. Water and energy prices must be kept down for essential needs.
Aubry says it is a shame that the previous ministers Montebourg et al, called the rebels, have left the government and their ideas were not discussed in Parliament. They should anyway not be called rebels since they are people who understand the economy, who were working for the success of the government and respect the prerogatives of parliament.
Martine Aubry is not afraid of sounding old fashioned, Sarkozy would even say archaic. About society she says:
“The market has taken over the whole of life; speculation affects everything, including food. Everything is for sale, including our bodies. It is the reign of ‘everyone for himself’.”
About Sunday work she says:
“We need to decide what sort of society we want to live in. Must consumption be the be all and end all of our life? Can’t we keep one day in the week for ourselves, for our family, for culture, for sport?”
Aubry’s record in office is good. Perhaps we should hope that she makes her presence felt. The population is not sure whether France should ‘modernise’ à la Blair, or remain faithful to the old principles of solidarity and public service. A successful mayor of a large city, like Aubry, is a good role model for a non-liberal future.