Burkas, Cannes, Tibhirine

Two mediatic moments of two quintessential French traditions of socio-religious-political intertwining in the month of May.

1. Laïcité. Earlier this month the French parliament moved to take up a vote to ban the wearing of the burka in public in France, following a Belgian law passed in April doing the same. Unlike the Belgian law, which draws its legitimacy from a logic of security (and which, several Le Monde comment-writers noted half-facetiously, should also have to apply to the motorcycle helmets of moped-driving pizza delivery boys), the French law contests that the burka is an unacceptable violation of universal human rights. One interesting and telling aspect about the move is the unequivocal determination of French parliamentarians from all across the political spectrum to reassert and articulate a legislative logic which is based on a societal consensus about the spirit of a founding constitutional value. In this case, the French parliament did not attempt to avoid the religious polemic associated with such a decision through a paltry declaration of “national security” (as the Belgians did). The Economist and others have pointed out that the constitutional value in question is egalité and that the legislative argument makes no reference to norms of laïcité. Yet, as protesters evidenced last week, it is hard not to interpret the proposed bill as part of a mounting defense by the French parliament of the primacy of the logic of public secularism over religious tolerance.

2. French Monasticism. Although Rachid Bouchared’s new film, Hors-la-loi, has held French headlines captive this month for the protests it stirred among ex-French combatants in Algeria, it was Xavier Beauvois’ film about the monks of Tibhirine (see blog entry July, 2009), Des Hommes et des Dieux, which brought home the Grand Prix at Cannes last night. And so the same month of May which has brought France to the banning of the burka has also given the French public access to one of the great acts of religious-inspired religious tolerance, fruit of the French Cistercian monastic tradition. If the reviews are worth their salt, Beauvois and his troupe are achingly successful in their depiction of the peace of the monks’ decision to embrace the religious other in love without fear.

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