You've got to hand it to the French (and if you don't they'll handle it themselves anyway, eh Thierry?) They seem to have a bracing disposition to cut through the bullmerde around some of the more fraught questions about national identity and what constitutes acceptable public display of fealty and devotion.
The kind of angst-ridden, self-flagellation around minority sensitivities that is, for instance, the British starting position on these questions, has never been a la mode in la belle France.
There's an intriguing paradox here: the British famously disdain high-falutin' theories and abstractions and yet find themselves unable to come forward with a single, coherent idea of what it is to be British, while the French, who followed Descartes up his own fundament 350 years ago and have only emerged occasionally since, seem to have an almost insultingly straightforward concept of what it is to be French.
The French like a lot of room to roam on whether they will or won't, and do or don't. They famously don't like the blunt 'say what you mean, mean what you say' style of our American cousins and they're too proud to look bothered by the barbs that come their way by return (it had to hurt a little when the radio jock Dennis Miller said that "the only way the French are going in is if we tell them we found truffles in Iraq").
They've a lot of words like 'elan' and 'panache' for doing things with a bit of style that may or may not work out. They seem to like that frisson (there's another) that comes with big, potentially combustible, personalities drawn together for a specific purpose (D'Artagnan and the musketeers, Sartre and De Beauvoir, Asterix and Obelix).
Yes, French men wear swimming togs that are too small, but there's a lot to love and admire about the French. They're not afraid to fall out amongst themselves. They're not afraid to take their internal disagreements out into the streets. They're completely cool about their fishermen's unions or farmers' associations punching it out with the CRS riot police for a couple of days if they've a problem with the government.
And doing it with a bit of class and gumption, instead of not answering the phones or replying to the emails or hiding the boss's stapler -- like some unions we could mention. They don't feel the need to worry about what the neighbours think. They don't care what the neighbours think. They don't seem to want cookie-cutter citizens; they want the verve and the sparks that come from conflicting ideas. In fact the only area of personal expression in which the French have indicated that they're going to draw the line is on the idea that women should draw the veil. That's interesting for all kinds of reasons that we might as well start thinking about now.
Last Tuesday a French parliamentary report described the wearing of full-face veils as "unacceptable" and condemned it as an excess. The report recommends forbidding the wearing of burka or niqab in many public places and Jean-Francois Cope, the parliamentary leader of the ruling UMP party, has drafted a law that conveys a most un-French terseness and finality on the subject of the wearing of this kind of dress " ... nobody, in places open to the public or on streets, may wear an outfit or an accessory whose effect is to hide the face".
In a context where the best estimate is that no more than 2,000 women in France actually wear the burka or niqab, what's the panic here? And why would a parliamentarian from such a famously subtle democracy feel the need to actually outlaw an item of dress?
This is getting closer to the point where it's no longer possible for little Ireland to play the amiable, provincial dunce. This is a 'make your mind up and take the consequences' kind of question and it's one that every country in western Europe is going to have to answer in due course. The French, as befits a people that fancy themselves no end, are going to go first. And you have to say they've come up with a little peach that covers them from every possible angle -- well, every possible angle that they'll worry about. The French have decided to double-bluff the Islamic fundamentalism that uses that country's freedom to publicly display symbols of its own religious intolerance and issues the kind of long-term threats designed to be picked up by anyone who cares to glance at the tables of Europe's birth rates and the religious affiliations therein.
Muslim fundamentalists claim that publicly wearing the burka or niqab or chador is about respect for the woman and a literal cordoning-off of her from a world that regards her as nothing more than a sexual object. But the serious Muslim scholarship points out that there isn't a word in the Koran about this and it's difficult to get away from the nagging feeling that the burkas aren't meant to remind the women themselves about this particularly uncomplicated version of Islam. Perhaps they're meant to remind us -- the non-breeding, non-Muslims -- of the delights that await us under this particularly uncomplicated version of Islam if the demographics in several European locations keep moving at the impressively brisk rate they are at present. Every time I see a burka -- and that'll be on the television -- I don't think "shit, I really wanted to check out that babe for the purposes of sexual objectification". What I think is "shit, I really, really, don't want to be around if that woman's male relatives ever get to have a say in how we do our thing here". And I'm not gay or Jewish or a particularly heavy consumer of rashers.
I think that's the way the French see it as well. Well, their take is going to be a bit more poised than that, obviously. But I think that the putative burka ban is a great deal more to do with the French reading the real message here and less to do with the claim that the wearing of these garments is an affront to their republican sensibilities and an unpardonable symbol of female repression in a state dedicated to equality. So both sides are bluffing and no one's going to say it straight out: the burka is nothing to do modesty or equality or gender status; the burka is a portent, a warning, a little visual jingle that says "comin' atcha, baby".
What's it like to wear a burka? To view the world swaddled from head to toe within an all-encompassing cocoon of nylon nothingness, peering out at reality through a letterbox slit that limits our vision, limits our world and removes the possibility of the peripheral. How can I know?
And yet I've been reading the Irish Times for 20 years now so the feeling is not entirely unfamiliar. When it's our turn to have the little national chat about this black neon sign of intolerance, I wonder will we be more honest than the French and just say we want it banned because it unnerves us ever so slightly. We look at the burka, think about a ban and then, with a tiny little shudder, we remember what Terence McSweeney told us and what we told each other. It's not those who inflict the most, but those who suffer the most who will conquer.
The burka doesn't offend us. The burka scares us.