The veil

“We are an old country anchored in a certain idea of how to live together. A full veil which completely hides the face is an attack on those values, which for us are so fundamental,” [Sarkozy] told his ministers. “Citizenship has to be lived with an uncovered face. There can therefore be absolutely no solution other than a ban in all public places.”

I suppose it’d be predictable and trite to quote the Deleuze and Guattari Faciality plateau here. So that’s what I’ll do. But which part exactly? This one is good:

[T]he abstract machine has you inscribed in its overall grid. It is clear that in its new role as deviance detector, the faciality machine does not restrict itself to individual cases but operates in just as general a fashion as it did in its first role, the computation of normalities. If the face is in fact Christ, in other words, your average ordinary White Man, then the first deviances, the first divergence-types, are racial: yellow man, black man. … They must be Christianized, in other words, facialized.

Certainly the problem of the veil — though the actual thing being talked about is the naqba or burqa — is an epistemological problem: the veiled face complicates the nation’s ability to fulfill the essential task of identifying and indexing its subjects. But it’s not simply a matter of knowledge.

European racism as the white man’s claim has never operated by exclusion. … Racism operates by the determination of degrees of deviance in relation to the White-Man face, which endeavors to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves, sometimes tolerating them at given places under given conditions, in a given ghetto, sometimes erasing them from the wall, which never abides alterity (it’s a Jew, it’s an Arab, it’s a Negro, it’s a lunatic . . .). From the viewpoint of racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside. There are only people who should be like us and whose crime it is not to be.

That’s good too. The banning of the veil in France surely evinces a discomfort with difference, especially sexual difference, which as Ida Dominijanni has said “is not an element that can be expansively included in democracy.” The further a subject gets from the norm, the more the nation’s discomfort grows. Sarkozy acknowledges the veil’s “exploding and unhinging” (Dominijanni) capacity, it’s political and ontological distance from the ideal, when he calls it an “attack” on democratic values. The ban, then, literally makes it a crime not to be like citizens recognized as French; those who insist on not being French in the decreed way are made criminals.

But that’s not all, or it’s not enough. What Deleuze and Guattari didn’t recognize, or what hadn’t developed enough when they were writing, was the fact of multiculturalism and its positive interpellations. As Sarkozy was beginning the process of banning the veil, he was also proposing vigorous — and probably unconstitutional — measures to increase educational and occupational opportunities for women, Africans, and migrants:

“How can we talk about a republic when your success at school and in professional life depends not on … merit but largely on your social origin, the neighbourhood where you live, your name or the colour of your skin?” Sarkozy said. […]

Sarkozy, a Hungarian immigrant’s son who did not pass through the typical elite channels to reach the top, made a huge political splash when he took office last year by naming women of Arab and African origin as cabinet ministers.

This was big news in a country where politics is overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Only one of the 555 members of the National Assembly from mainland France is from an ethnic minority. In the Senate, the proportion is three out of 312, according to anti-racist groups CRAN and MRAP.

Sarkozy’s measures include requiring elite institutions to raise the number of students on scholarships, and creating special training programmes to help people from poorer neighbourhoods pass exams to get into the senior civil service.

He also proposes requiring 100 large companies to experiment with recruitment based on anonymous CVs, to combat rampant discrimination against names revealing an immigrant origin.

So France, which is constitutionally opposed to multiculturalism, nevertheless sees multiculturalism’s benefit: its ability to unify while retaining stratification, its ability to include populations while encoding their supplementarity. Given the threats represented by the veil and the banlieus, France needs more exhortation and less repression.

This doesn’t mean that there are no longer negative interpellations. There are, and the ban on the veil is exactly that. Part of the beauty of the ban is that in the extreme specificity of its target — fewer than three hundred women in all of France wear it — the government can both proclaim its general nonapplicability and have it act as identifier and marker of deviance, racial as well as sexual. But as soon as this deviance is marked, it is accompanied by integrating programs that would, putatively at least, target the entire population instead of a small segment of it.

None of this really disproves anything Deleuze and Guattari say. But it does indicate that multiculturalism’s advance is that has developed a supple capability to integrate populations even as it declares their aberrance. These days, the “eccentric and backward waves” rely more on tolerance than on erasure.

UPDATE 9/8/10: Yves Coleman makes a similar point:

As regards islam, the Left and the Far Left have the same dif­fi­culty and inca­pa­city to explain and unders­tand the UMP’s policy as shown when they denounce its so-called « isla­mo­pho­bia ». It’s a non­sense to call « isla­mo­pho­bic » Sarkozy, a man who forced the main ten­den­cies of French islam to unite in a common orga­ni­sa­tion (the Consultative Council of Muslim Cult) in order to orga­nize the coo­pe­ra­tion bet­ween the minis­ter of Interior and the main Muslim asso­cia­tions ; who has deci­ded that the French State will finance the secu­lar for­ma­tion of 50 imams every year at the… Catholic Institute of Paris ; who took with him to Irak the lea­ders of the main French Muslim asso­cia­tions, so that they could send a reli­gious mes­sage to the kid­nap­pers when a French jour­na­list was held hos­tage for months, etc.

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