The French ban on the niqab has been upheld. Quite right too

And perhaps it is time the British followed suit


The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has come in for much stick over the years, especially in Britain, where it is widely seen as far too indulgent towards manifest villains, such as foreign criminals who refuse to go home.

We Europhiles can object as loudly as we like that Strasbourg is not at all the same as Brussels and that any fault rests equally with British judges for the generous interpretation they place on European human rights provisions, but no one really listens. Strasbourg still takes the flak.

So I wonder what those same critics made of the judgment the court handed down this week, upholding the right of France to ban the niqab – or to be precise, the wearing of the full-face veil in public.

For my part, I was surprised – and that puts it mildly. Cultural tolerance always seemed one of the court’s guiding principles. The notion that it might carry the torch for what constitutes quite a prescriptive view of European-ness seems to cut across that in a big way.

The ruling is not completely without precedent. In 2008, the same court upheld the right of the French government to ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools. This judgment, though, seemed to reflect more a sort of judicial “subsidiarity” – an acceptance by Strasbourg that the last word on such matters should rest with the national courts - rather than anything more sweeping. The ruling was about schools, not about a way of life.

The latest judgment seems different. For a start, this is because it relates to public places and, in effect, the whole public sphere. But, while it is carefully worded – as indeed is the French legislation – mentioning face-covering in general, with no reference to religion – the ruling also makes explicit the social and cultural aspect. In so doing, it comes close to defining something of what it might mean to be European.

The official court statement said that the court had been “able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question."

The generality of the judgment opens the way for other European governments to follow suit. Belgium enacted such a law three years ago; some cities in Spain and Italy have their own by-laws. Other governments, including our own, may feel that enacting such legislation could be dangerously counterproductive, driving a section of the population that already feels alienated and perhaps unwelcome even further from the mainstream.

I can well imagine, though, that the judgment from Strasbourg will encourage opponents of the full-face veil in Britain to lobby for legislation here. This may help to explain why ministers seem to have played it down. Recent surveys suggest that a large majority of the population would support a ban – and, I admit, I would be among them - for the very same social and cultural considerations as cited by the judges in Strasbourg.

It does not seem unreasonable to expect those who choose to settle in Britain to observe the prevailing social norms, whether that is not throwing your rubbish from your balcony; being married to one wife at a time; not having your daughters “cut” – or not covering your face.

The British preference for muddling through has so far resulted in piecemeal edicts about full-face veils worn by students at universities (OK, not OK, then OK again); lawyers and defendants in courts (sometimes OK); teachers in schools (not OK), and hospital staff (not OK), though how well enforced these provisions are is another matter. 

Legislation would, of course, be divisive; enforcement still more so, especially if police started to patrol areas with large Muslim populations, handing out fines or invitations to citizenship classes. Some of these same areas, however, have already been targeted by Muslim vigilantes, threatening women walking around in Western dress, so you could argue that a greater police presence would not go amiss.

In matters of cultural difference, the UK has generally preferred an attitude of “live and let live” to France’s overt pressure to conform. But the ruling from Strasbourg this week could fuel popular pressure, in this one respect, for us to become a little more like the French.   

Radio 5

At the height of the Ukraine crisis, I was called by BBC Breakfast, to see whether I could appear “on the sofa” to talk about it. There was, though, a complication. To sit on that sofa, I would need to take the train to Manchester and spend the night in a hotel. I declined, as gracefully as I could, pointing out that what might look to a BBC producer like not very much of my time at all – after all, everything would be arranged for me, I could work on the train, spend a pleasant night in a hotel, and be back in London by mid-morning - would in fact amount to quite a big slice out of my life. With a husband who is not well, I try to spend as few nights away as possible – and I imagine the same goes for others, including mothers of small children.

Radio, at least for those of us being interviewed, presents less of a problem. You do not, for instance, have to be seen on the sofa. You can be pretty much anywhere. If you are a presenter or a producer, however, and the planning and production happens in Salford, then it does matter – which is why (call me shamefully London-centric) it seemed strange for the BBC to move news-led operations, including Breakfast and Radio Five Live to Salford, when the rest of the national news operation remained in London.

The risk – some might say promise – was that these programmes would lose their national news edge and acquire a non-metropolitan, possibly northern, accent. This is what now seems to be happening with the departure of two of Radio 5 Live’s most familiar, and pitch-perfect, female voices, those of Victoria Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty, and what looks like a decided tilt towards (even) more sport. If the BBC wants to have a dedicated radio sports channel, let’s have one – and take the cricket off Radio 3. But then let’s have a proper news-only channel, too.

Let’s not forget that the London channel, LBC, has gone national, trying to draw listeners from across the country, while remaining rooted in the capital. The terrain for rolling national news and topical phone-ins may be more contested than the BBC thinks.

Why Nicole Scherzinger's battle with bulimia matters
Hunting beautiful animals doesn't "help" them
Now we can see where the right to be forgotten leads

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Infrastructure Analyst

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Infrastructure Ana...

Teacher of Learners with Special Needs - Nottingham

£130 - £161 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Teacher required to work w...

Science Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Science Teachers needed for s...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: Ed Miliband on low pay; Alan Johnson on Betjeman; Tom Freeman on editing

John Rentoul
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments