Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - heat, the niqab and a French Australia

It's just coming up on dawn. Yesterday was a hot day, today is expected to be more so. They are talking about 43c, 109.4F. That's quite hot.

Last night we went out for a fish dinner then walked along the beachfront at Coogee. For  those who don't know Sydney, Coogee is a beach-side suburb in eastern Sydney that has long been a Sydney playground. It's a five minute drive from our current house.

The walkway along the beach was still packed with people just ambling or sitting on benches or the grass eating and talking. Very much a mixed crowd, with people from all over the world.

I was thinking about this in the context of the current discussions in France over the banning or otherwise of full face coverage such as the niqab, together with associated worries about French national identity. These left me a little bemused.

I can understand to some degree the concerns about French identity given the country's history, including the perceived centrality of French language and culture. I used to worry about identity issues in Australia too until I decided that popular Australian culture itself was just so strong that it was a powerful melding force independent of other things.

While I can understand the identity question, the earlier banning of head scarves in school and now the debate about the niqab really does bemuse me.

You will find the niqab in Australia in places such as the Sydney suburb of Eastlakes near where we used to live, but it is rare. My reaction to it is very much the same as it used to be to nuns wearing full habit when I was a child, curiosity. It must be bloody hot on a scorching day!

The problem that the French face is that once you turn a thing from a curiosity into a symbol, then you actually create risk creating the thing that is worrying you, in this case a threat to national identity. 

Mind you, France has quite a long history of central enforcement, of an authoritarian state. I have sometimes wondered in an idle way just what would have happened had the French rather than the British settled Australia.

I don't think that it would have made much difference to the Aborigines, the same processes of social and cultural destruction would have occurred. However, it would certainly have made a major difference to the history of European Australia.

It is quite possible that the continent would have become British territory anyway as part of the peace settlements at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, so we would then have had a French and British presence in Australia more akin to that of Canada. Had that not happened, then it seems likely that Australia would have been managed as as Department of Metropolitan France and a key centre of a much larger French Empire in the Pacific. How this would subsequently have played out in constitutional terms is anyone's guess.

Dear me, I feel a book coming on! Time for a quick slap to the wrist.

Dawn has now fully broken. Time to begin the day's activities.       

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