“Burkini” ban shows limitations of democracy

The social liberal elite celebrated on Friday as the Court struck down an attempt by politicians in France to ban so-called “burkinis”, deeming it “seriously and clearly illegal” under the constitution.

There was no real cause for celebration, however.

To be clear, the ban on burkinis was outrageous, sexist and pretty much racist. The obvious point – that nuns or even motorcyclists could walk around on a beach fully clothes but Muslim women could not – was widely made. The notion that women should be instructed on what to wear was rightly compared with a century ago, or Nazi occupation. That anyone would even think of such a thing is cause for alarm.

And yet the ban was popular. It was, after all, implemented by those elected by the people. Polls showed it had significant support, and not just in France but also in Germany (if there is any country which should know better about such things, surely Germany is it). Former (and perhaps future) President Sarkozy has come out broadly in favour of it, moving it into the mainstream.

It took educated members of the elite to point out the obvious – that in a land of liberte, egalite and fraternite, such a bad was clearly unconstitutional. Yet that educated elite is increasingly a minority, and a disparaged one at that. Ask people who have spent time gathering education and knowledge what they think, and they will say one thing; ask people who are ignorant what they thing, and they will say another. Increasingly, it is the latter which is coming to represent “popular opinion”.

Right here, we are facing a crisis of democracy. Democracy is not just about reflecting the popular will. It is about the Rule of Law, fair play for all (including protection of minorities), and indeed the prevalence of basic common sense. It is therefore not just about one person one vote, but also that recognising the one person’s ignorance is not equal to another person’s knowledge, and that one person’s prejudice is not equal to another person’s merit-based decision-making.

But the burkini thing was a defeat for democracy, overturned only by the derided elite. We are in serious trouble.


5 thoughts on ““Burkini” ban shows limitations of democracy

  1. 416 says:

    We’re heading toward Owell’s ‘1984’ – thinking is the new terrorism

  2. Seymour Major says:

    I’m not saying that there are not problems with democracy here or in other democratic countries but what you have highlighted is a problem with democracy which is particular to France.

    You can blame an ignorant majority population but the real problem is unethical French politicians who allowed the law to go onto the statute without proper debate or in ignorance of constitutional principles. It also bucked a trend towards more libertarian policy which has occurred in most western democracies.

    Whilst there are some UK politicians that you might consider racist, I don’t believe that any comparable measure would have passed through the UK Parliament. The UK Parliament has also been known to reject proposals which were popular with the vast majority of the population. An example which springs to mind is the motions relating to bringing back capital punishment which were rejected in the 1980s when the IRA was very active.

  3. andyboal says:

    It rather reminds me of when we have had to rely on the unelected House of Lords to consider the impact of legislation prepared by assorted Governments on the people who elected them and amend it accordingly…

  4. Well the constitution and the law are both democratic … I think constitutions are there to ensure any new law actually obeys the remaining law.

    I get why people wanted the burkini ban, and I spoke to a French man who said while the law may be stupid, there are “stupid laws” in Arab countries that their people decide on, and we must obey them as a guest not a host.

    That is a fair criticism, but it doesn’t justify the ban.

    I am amazed at the sheer complexity of French democracy … Some French secularist arguing that a person’s choice to wear “Islamic garments” were no business of the state, and some Muslims saying that wearing clothes in the knowledge that it may garner political attention forsake the modesty demanded by the Qu’ran, or that there jurisprudence over what clothes are considered halal.

    Some of the clothing worn by Muslims are more cultural acquirement than anything demanded of the Qu’ran.

    Indeed Morrocco, businesses possibly owned by Muslims tried to ban it as well.


    What will ultimately determine the realationship between French secularists and French Muslims will not be Laïcité but Liberté, égalité, fraternité that comes from sharing concerns.

    I mean to some extents seeing little difference between the burkini and a commercial wetsuit in both these customs would be common ground that offends neither.

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