Law and the Presentation of Self in France

The draft law banning face covering by women was presented to the French Cabinet today. (The draft will likely be brought before the parliament in July, according to an AP story.) This has prompted me, all lawyer-like, to go in search of the actual text of the bill. So far as I can find, Documentissime reports (via Le Figaro) that the critical language is as follows:

«Nul ne peut, dans l’espace public, porter une tenue destinée à dissimuler son visage.»

Google translate does a pretty good rendition of this as:

No person may, in public, wear clothing designed to conceal his face. (Love the masculine singular “his.”)

Whatever else might fall under the wheels of this slim tumbril, it seems highly likely to opress the few (the French Interior Ministry has given an estimate of 1,900) women who wear the niqāb, at whom it is avowedly directed. If, as all reports indicate, the bill is bound to be passed into law no matter the protests, it might be time for people opposed to laws governing appearance to sport challenging gear, such as Lone Ranger masks, Balaclavas, Groucho nose/glasses etc.

This sort of law is not wholly different from past sumptuary laws, which were ostensibly aimed at “restraining luxury or extravagance . . . in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc.,” as Black’s puts it, when in fact they were about maintaining social class distinctions and hierarchies — and mostly they failed. Here there’s an apparent aim of supporting the equality of French womanhood and an undertext of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment.

But we keep on trying: rules/laws about what kids can wear in highschool, about how low your pants can hang, whether women can go topless, and whether Mounties can wear turbans, who can wear beards and how long they may be.

Recently, the law said to prevent women in Paris from wearing pants has been rediscovered. Here, too, I wanted to see what it actually said. CFO-news has it this way (along with an unreadable jpeg of the actual document):

La loi du 26 Brumaire an IX de la République dispose :

“toute femme désirant s’habiller en homme doit se présenter à la Préfecture de police pour en obtenir l’autorisation. . . . . Cette autorisation ne peut être donnée qu’au vu d’un certificat d’un officier de santé . . .”


The law of 26 Brumaire, Year IX of the Republic {which I think is Monday 17 November 1800} states:

“Any woman who wants to dress as a man must go to police headquarters to obtain permission….. This authorization can only be given that, given upon a certificate from a health officer.. “.]

I’m curious about this fear of cross-dressing. Would I be right in supposing, too, that there was no need to prevent men from dressing as women because it was too heavily censured by society?

Forlorn hopes, all. But fascinating nonetheless for what they reveal about the importance of surfaces and, more particularly, the way we appear to others.

Pull up those socks.


  1. Apparently France has neither winter nor Halloween.

  2. Good points, David. But what about those bals masqués?

  3. Hallowe’en was just being discovered in France about the turn of the century. We were in a small town in the south west on All Saints Day 2001(the reason the kids weren’t in school) and the town had had its first Hallowe’en celebration ever the night before – mainly reserved for adults, so it seemed. Probably the bals masqués were not considered in public.

    I am still a bit put out by laws forcing people to be ‘equal’ who do not choose to express their equality in the way that the majority wishes. We certainly have a place for laws that protect people who are not allowed to opt out, e.g. the Wages Act that limits how much of one’s income one may assign to a creditor, or the Construction Lien Act that does not allow a worker to waive the lien. Some people are presumed to be in a permanently weak situation so will make bad bargains if allowed to do so, i.e. they will surrender the law’s protection.

    But is everyone in French (or Quebec, or our) society in need of such protection? Clearly not. The law aims to protect one small group of people, whether they want to be protected or not. What gives the majority the right to presume others’ need to be protected? Is there the kind of evidence that can be assembled for the Ontario statutes I mentioned?