How the Dreyfus Affair Explains Sarkozy’s Burqa Ban

Militant secularism has a long, troubled history in France, from paranoia over nun's wimples to the Dreyfusard anti-Jesuit campaigns. Where will it end?


France is once again beset by the politics of the veil. After a 2004 ban on "all conspicuous" religious symbols in French state schools — a measure that barred the wearing of crucifixes, Sikh turbans, and Jewish skullcaps but was clearly targeted at headscarf-wearing Muslims — President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken it a step further.

Now he is pressing for a total ban on the public wearing of the full veil, or burqa, by Muslim women, framing the legislation in terms of national identity: "[The burqa] will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic," he said last year. The veil made women "prisoners behind netting" and "is not the idea the French republic has of women’s dignity."

Indeed, the debate has a long history in France and is not merely a product of the right, though Sarkozy’s opponents denounce it as a nakedly political attempt to attract anti-immigrant support. A powerful, and sometimes irrational, fear of religious influence — once  Catholic, now Muslim — has long been a part of French society, through the anti-clerical campaigns of the 19th century and the anti-Jesuit paranoia of the Dreyfus affair. It’s impossible to understand the burqa debate without understanding the nature of the polemics that shaped it.

Anti-clerical sentiment became a major force in French political life in the 18th century, when philosophers attacked the Catholic Church as an enemy of the Enlightenment and a supporter of the oppressive monarchical government. Many of the early debates centered around women’s bodies and freedoms, with religion depicted as attacking society’s weakest and most vulnerable members. In La Religieuse (The Nun), Denis Diderot’s 1796 novel, a young innocent, Suzanne, is unscrupulously pressed into taking the veil and then subjected to the sexual advances and moral perfidy of her superiors. In the work, the veil is a symbol of imprisonment, darkness, and unbridled, corrupt power. As historian Caroline Ford has shown, "forced claustration" became a legal cause célèbre in the 19th century, as lawyers denounced the loss of women’s "civil personality" when they entered convents.

Anti-clerical campaigners condemned nuns’ habits in much the same way that today’s commentators rail against the full veil as the ultimate symbol of sexual and political oppression. The 19th century in France saw a massive growth in the numbers of women entering orders, and a corresponding increase in the number of wimples that distinguished their distinctive vocations. Nuns’ habits were denounced as outward proof of the church’s ability to enforce an unnatural spiritual and physical discipline on victimized women. Even today the occasional commentator acknowledges that the Carmelites and Clarisses Sisters, both contemplative orders, impose a strict confinement on their nuns and require a costume little different from the burqa.

Behind the fantasy of the victimized nun was the specter of the Svengali-like manipulating priest — one that closely parallels today’s fears over the power of radical imams. In his best-selling 1845 polemic Du prêtre, de la femme et de la famille, the 19th-century historian Jules Michelet argued that priests, and especially Jesuits, got between husband and wife to turn women away from the emancipation that Republicanism offered. Many mainstream French feminists in the 1880s and 1890s even opposed giving women the vote on the grounds they would cast their ballot as their confessors told them.


It was around this time that the concept of "laïcité" gained strength as a militant form of secularism that allowed freedom of religious conscience and worship as long as they were private and discreet. The new Third Republic promoted laïcité to fend off reactionary political and religious ideologies and to encourage allegiance to the regime — important at a time when France was the only major country in Europe that was not a monarchy. In the 1870s and 1880s, as part of the struggle for laïcité, the government removed crucifixes from the nation’s classrooms and guaranteed free secular primary education for everyone.

The Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s only strengthened the Republican commitment to secularism. Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army captain of Jewish descent, was wrongly convicted of treason and sent into exile. The trauma of the Affair, which dragged on for years as Dreyfus was reconvicted in 1899 and only finally exonerated in 1906, split the political class in two and severely damaged France’s international reputation. Dreyfus’s reconviction was carried out by a military court in what was seen by his allies as a clerico-military conspiracy. The Dreyfusards blamed the Catholic elite, particularly the aristocratic Jesuit priest Stanislas du Lac. Du Lac not only had an entree into the highest levels of the Catholic elite, he also presided over the Lycée Ste Geneviève, which channeled many of its pupils into the army officer corps. Many Dreyfusards argued that it was du Lac’s minions who orchestrated the military conspiracy that kept the innocent Jewish captain in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island — an accusation with little factual support.

In the aftermath, activists who had worked to free him sought their revenge against the clerical enemy, with some extremists thinking nothing of blacklisting military officers simply because they went to Mass. In 1905, laïcité was embodied in law through the formal separation of church and state. More recently, it has served as a justification for the 2004 headscarf ban and the current campaign against the full veil.

The fears of today are built on those of the past, the Catholic enemy now superseded by the Islamic menace. This is not to suggest that religious institutions are faultless: The recent revelations about child abuse within the Catholic Church show that secrecy and complicity can indeed encourage the worst kinds of exploitation. And during the Dreyfus Affair, one of the main sources of anti-Semitic invective was La Croix, a newspaper run by the Assumptionist order, which for years ran stories of Jewish financial dishonesty, treachery, and ritual murder.

But there is no doubt that, just as the anti-clerical fury back then sometimes also targeted innocent Catholics, the focus on the full veil now heightens the polemical temperature by demonizing Muslims as oppressors of women. In their opposition to the veil, certain feminists have become allied to nationalism. Laïcité, which originated in a wish to defend French liberties from religious fanaticism, now risks undermining those liberties by criminalizing the tiny minority of Muslim women in France for what they wear.

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