ALBERICI: Is there anything more French than the Moulin Rouge? Every night 1700 people enjoy this quintessential French cabaret. They’ve been dancing the Can Can here for 120 years.
AXELLE: “The majority of people are impressed. It’s still one of the more famous symbols of Paris”.
ALBERICI: For dancers like Axelle who are chosen to grace this stage, it’s the realisation of a childhood dream - inspired in part by her grandmother.
AXELLE: “Sometimes I can see some old people in the audience and I’m always thinking about my grandmother who was always working all her life and like her dream was to come in Moulin Rouge because it was, we are speaking about 50 years ago, it was really too much expensive for her”.
ALBERICI: Along the banks of the Seine, away from the bright lights and scanty costumes, the showgirl is increasingly worried about clothing designed to cover up the female form.
AXELLE: “I’m against the burka. Really it’s a jail for me. Yeah exactly that’s the word, I think it’s a jail”.
ALBERICI: Axelle and her husband Aslan see their neighbourhood changing. They’re uneasy about the distinctive Islamic dress they’re seeing more and more. The way they see it, it’s an affront to the French way of life.
“You said to me that you felt sad. What is it do you think they miss out on?
AXELLE: “If you’re not happy with it, if you don’t understand that you are in a country with a little freedom and liberty just, if you’re not happy with it just go wherever you want in another country”.
ALBERICI: France is grappling with a large and growing Islamic community – now the biggest in Europe. Ten per cent of the French population is Muslim, not just recent arrivals but many who are born and raised as French citizens - most obviously the women who choose to cover up, from head to toe.
It’s estimated just a couple of thousand French women wear the burka. It’s a very small number but they’ve inspired a big national controversy. We’ve come to this public housing estate in Evry, half an hour south of the city, to meet Soraya Khedrouche and her family.
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “A Muslim woman must please only her husband. And we’re very sexy – Muslim women take really good care of themselves but they never show themselves to the rest of the world”.
ALBERICI: Soraya and husband Badris, who migrated from Algeria 15 years ago, consider themselves a modern French couple raising a thoroughly French tribe of five children.
BADRIS: “I didn’t force her to convert to Islam. I didn’t force her to wear the veil. It’s not up to me to make the decision, it’s up to her. She can take the veil off, or she can keep it. It’s her choice, not mine”.
ALBERICI: “You close yourself off to the rest of society, why do you do that?”
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “It’s not closing myself off from society, because I do interact with you – and the other people outside, I interact with them, I speak to them. It is true that I don’t get accosted by men outside anymore. Yes, it’s true I shut that door”.
ALBERICI: Born in France and christened in a Catholic Church, Chrystel Angelique, Soraya endured sexual harassment as a child and teenager. She says she sought out a religion offering a stronger moral code and was just 18 when to her mother’s distress she converted to Islam and adopted a Muslim name.
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “I didn’t like it when I was in the street and there were men trying to speak to me. The solution for me was to wear the full body cover”.
ALBERICI: “So the solution was to wear the full veil over your face?”
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “Mmm..... knowing at the same time that the Prophet’s wives – peace be with him – were dressed with the full body cover. Allah says in the Koran that we must do as the Prophet Mohammed did – and what his wives did”.
ALBERICI: Much of that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes the French so very... well, French, is on display all over Paris, like right here where women come every day to worship the Gods of fashion. But does what we wear really define who we are? The government certainly thinks so and so from now on, to make sure that everyone is embracing the values of freedom, equality and fraternity, citizenship will come with a dress code.
The number of wearing the burka represents a fraction of 1% of the population, yet President Nicolas Sarkozy gave them special attention during his historic state of the nation address.
PRESIDENT SARKOZY: “We cannot accept in our country that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not the idea we have in the Republic of France of the dignity of women”.
ALBERICI: He used the occasion to deliver this declaration.
PRESIDENT SARKOZY: “The problem of the burka is not one of religion, it is a problem of freedom of the dignity of women. The burka will not be welcome in the territory of the French Republic”.
ALBERICI: Recent regional elections were a disaster for Sarkozy’s party losing serious ground to the far right national front. Legislating to ban the burka might just win back some of those votes.
In the parliamentary gardens, Sarkozy supporter, Jacques Myard, insists that the burka is at odds with the French national identity. Banning it now has broad cross party support.
JACQUES MYARD: “When you hide your face to somebody, I am the victim. I am - because you refuse me to see who you are and this is not acceptable”.
ALBERICI: “You say that wearing the burka or niqab is an affront to the French values or the quality of secularity or dignity. Is freedom not also a French value?”
JACQUES MYARD: “It is but the freedom stops where the law says it and if I decide myself well I go naked in the street, will you accept it? No. Even if I claim it is my individual liberty, my individual freedom. So I think this is absolutely a false argument and individual liberties stop at the collective will of willing to live together”.
ALBERICI: Soraya Khedrouche would like to meet the politicians who want to tell her what not to wear and lecture them about freedom.
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: We have no choice… no choice. You have a choice and I have no choice. This is life. You are allowed to dress how you want, but I don’t have that right. Is this freedom? Is this life? You are entitled to happiness. I am happy the way I am, but have no right to continue this life. Is that equality? You are happy… I will not be happy. Is this equality? No!”
ALBERICI: But even at Soraya’s local mosque in Evry there is no absolute freedom. She isn’t allowed to wear the face covering veil here. The rector Khalid Merroun doesn’t approve of it. He tells me that the Islamic holy book, the Koran makes it clear only that women should be discreet and cover their hair with a scarf known as the hijab.
“What do you think about the government’s law to ban the scarves?”
KHALID MERROUN: “I was always against the laws. The more laws you make, the more you aggravate the situation. I am for dialogue”.
ALBERICI: “Is Islam under attack from the French Government?”
KHALID MERROUN: “No, Islam today is a partner of the government. We’re living in a secular state. The state must not favour one religion over another”.
ALBERICI: In mosques across the country tempers are rising over the proposed law. At Drancy on the other side of Paris, worshippers are deeply divided because here the Imam has very publicly-sided with the government.
HASSEN CHALGHOUMI: “In France after September 11, Islam had such a very negative image problem – an image of fear… an image that each Muslim must prove at all times that he is innocent, and not connected to al Qaeda… and has no links with any kind of terrorism. On top of all that, if you dress in a certain way it can fuel a certain kind of political extremism and racist tendencies”.
ALBERICI: The mosque and its spiritual leader have around the clock police protection. A group of worshippers are distributing a flyer calling for the sacking of the young Tunisian born Imam. Hassen Chalghoumi has been threatened with death but says he wont be intimidated by those he calls extremists.
“So how do you feel about the government’s position on the burka, that they want to ban the burka?”
HASSEN CHALGHOUMI: “Personally, I’m in favour of this law and as well, it will give a positive image of Islam – an image you can relate to – because your face reveals your identity”.
ALBERICI: Soraya Khedrouche spends her Saturday morning like any other French mother might – shopping. She wants the world to know that while she may look different to mainstream Parisians, underneath her black cloak she’s just like everyone else and now after two days of being with us, she feels comfortable enough to reveal her eyes.
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “Before marriage I have French friends and sometimes they talk to me, why you don’t like you are French?”
ALBERICI: “Do you feel that you’re not French anymore?”
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “No, I am French”.
ALBERICI: “What does it mean to be French?”
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “For me French identity is ah..... when I see the sport, you know the Olympic Games, my heart with the French supporters you know? I feel oh my husband, what are you doing on the TV. French people, French people yeah”.
ALBERICI: The Moulin Rouge showgirl Axelle, the only reason to cover her head is for safety. The motorbike makes getting to work a lot easier. And this is what she loves about being French – that a woman can do and wear whatever she wants or very little at all and be admired and respected regardless.
AXELLE: “In France it’s really an honour to be here. When I’m on stage it’s the best feeling, that’s what I’ve worked for since I was eight. It’s really why I’m waking up every day. It’s really what I love. It’s giving so much energy”.
ALBERICI: “The Muslim woman that I interviewed.... she said in modern society, relationships are not respected”.
AXELLE: “It’s our culture. In our culture a man is respecting me, I respect him. It’s really the same. We are sharing everything. I’m never going to cheat on him.... you say it like this, yes? It’s not about religion or culture it’s just about respect”.
ALBERICI: The grand mosque of Paris is a symbol of the long relationship between France and Islam. It was built by the government in 1926 as a gesture of thanks to the Muslims of the North African colonies who fought for France in World War I. After the Second World War those people were invited here to help reconstruct the country. That wave of immigration helped deliver to France the biggest Muslim population in Europe.
PIERRE BUILLY: “Freedom… equality… fraternity. They must not change. They are more than values, they are principles”.
ALBERICI: The faces at this citizenship ceremony tell the story of 21st century France.
PIERRE BUILLY: “Equality means that everyone – in a workshop, an office, a factory, a polling booth – everyone is equal, and worth as much as the next person”.
ALBERICI: There are now six million Muslims in a population of 60 million. No burkas in this room and that’s not surprising, given how some Muslim women react at the mere mention of the Islamic veil.
“What do the niqab and the burka represent to you?”
SIHEM HACHBI: “A coffin! The ultimate oppression. Inhumanity. For me it’s the last step. After that there is the end”.
ALBERICI: Sihem Hachbi, a French Algerian Muslim is the Director of a group with a confronting name – Neither Whores nor Submissives. They meet every week in a hall in central Paris. They’ve heard their share of horror stories about Muslim women forced by men to wear the burka.
SIHEM HACHBI: “Everyone talks about the choice to wear the burka but nobody wants to talk about the violence under the burka and just are reduced to an animal sometimes. You don’t have you know you are treated as nothing. So who are those men? Because it’s men that decide that Islam is a religion that oppress women? I’m sorry, I’m not agree”.
ALBERICI: The Imam of Drancy believes the burka represents fundamentalism. For him the world would be a better place if every country was more like France and less like Afghanistan.
HASSEN CHALGHOUMI: “You have to understand that the burka is an Afghani phenomenon. Afghan equals Taliban. Taliban equals terrorism. This woman shows a type of Islam that we cannot accept here”.
ALBERICI: This image of a Muslim couple from the caucuses strikes a nerve with those in France who fear Islam. With explosives strapped to her body the 17 year old woman and a veiled female friend blew themselves up last month on the Moscow subway, killing 39 strangers.
Fifteen years ago, Algerian terrorists bombed the Paris metro. The intelligence service here suggests that the strong links between al Qaeda and Algerian extremists represents an increasing danger to France. A burka ban would apply on public transport and even on the streets, but legal advisers have warned that it may be unconstitutional in France and would be challenged in the European Union.
“Aren’t you concerned that your proposed law will be rejected by the European Court of Justice?”
JACQUES MYARD: “No, absolutely not. In fact we want the law to liberate those women because in my view, they are you know, in almost in a ghetto... in a ghetto, and we cannot mix with those people. Or our aim is that those people become maybe one day citizens if they want, of this country, so they have to adopt the values but also the standards of living of our country”.
ALBERICI: In fact Soraya Khedrouche is a French born citizen. For her French values are not incompatible with being a pious Islamic woman, just not as important. Missing the sun on her face and the wind in her hair is she says a small price to pay for a ticket to paradise.
SORAYA KHEDROUCHE: “In the paradise I have very nice hair, very nice dress, very nice everything. I am the best woman, you know? And I want that. I am sure. My life is for that. It’s for eternity I am sure”.
ALBERICI: Overwhelmingly though French women do their living in the here and now. They’re among the crowds in the Louvre who crane for a view of the most beguiling female face of all time [Mona Lisa]. And they draw inspiration from the stoic and powerful female figures of French history – Marianne and Joan of Arc – all of whom fought for freedom.