April 13, 2011

French democracy - for export only?


Let there be no doubt, democracy was advanced yesterday in Africa. And payback is aways nice, too.

The French just apprehended Laurent Gbagbo after weeks of brutal fighting and negotiations. Gbagbo was the President of Côte d'Ivoire who consolidated the country and led it out of a deadlocked and deadly civil war, only to lose the first free election since... But more importantly, the French had to enjoy the moment, since they have long backed the other side, in this case the side whose candidate won last November's vote. My question is, whether the same tanks that knocked through Gbagbo's palace in the name of democracy were the same ones France was using just a few years ago to try to get their rebel allies into power by sheer force. 

Somehow Gbagbo managed to head off France's interference long enough to get his country back on track, only he forgot that too much of a good thing, c'est trop. Instead of taking the villa in exile with trust fund, he'll now get a condo with bars.


Meanwhile, back in the birthplace of Liberté, Égalité & Fraternité (i.e., Ile de France), the popular national ban on public display of full veils went into effect. Some months ago, an online video ridiculing this initiative went viral [warning: contains dangerous post-modern dichotomies and moral complexity]. French tolerance has gone from ridiculous to medieval, in under one year.

The new restriction is either to empower Muslim women or to strike back at evil Islam and the immigrant Muslims who dared move in after France cut loose its North African former colonies and prefectures. Ironically and predictably, a fair number of Muslim women have recently adopted the niqab as a reaction against France's latest cultural triumphalism. And even so, estimates are that only a few thousand women across France actually obscure their faces in this manner.

Again, let the re be no doubt: I am no particular fan of radical Islam or the subjugation of women. But before the Enlightenment, Europeans demonstrated contempt for religious expression not their own, and since the Enlightenment they have broadened that circle of contempt to include all religious expression. Why am I always so disappointed when society plays to type?

Many of those women who insist on wearing the niqab will now have to choose between staying indoors, leaving the country for places far less tolerant of gender equality, or braving French streets where local police say they won't enforce the ban. A ban that isn't enforced means women wearing the veil can be arrested selectively, not a good recipe for rule of law. The French people may wish to ask Monsieur Gbagbo about the rule of law...

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