The controversy surrounding this law has made strange bedfellows of former political enemies. Many on the right who proudly support its re-imposition of French cultural values are finding allies on the left among those who think that niqabs and other religious face coverings are oppressive to women. Conversely, those who oppose the law as an encroachment on the freedom of religion are finding common cause with those who believe the law unfairly singles out a minority.
The real story is none of this. This is not a law about women’s rights, minority rights, anti-terrorism, or French culture.
This is a story about this:
And specifically the French government’s desire to put 1200 of these security cameras in Paris by 2012. “I am very impressed by the efficiency of the British police thanks to this network of cameras,” Said French President Sarkozy in 2008. “In my mind, there is no contradiction between respecting individual freedoms and the installation of cameras to protect everyone’s security.”
Maybe not, but there is a contradiction between the government wanting security cameras to watch people on the street, and those people wanting to cover their faces. In fact, the French government is on track to increase the number of surveillance cameras throughout France to a whopping 60,000. This is not about women’s rights or religious rights, this is about making those 60,000 cameras worthwhile.
The point of security cameras is not to constantly watch the public. The point is to make the public constantly think that they may be watched. The point is to put the power of the State into the mind of the person on the street, to make the people internalize the State’s voice:
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action…power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so…The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.
– Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Security cameras do not merely see, they also project. They project power back onto you. When you think you are being watched, the presence of the watcher is felt locally and their power over you felt acutely. Surveillance cameras in public spaces are projectors of state power, eliminating those interstitial spaces and moments where authority is believed to be absent based on the absences of its agents.
In light of this, we can now see the real threat of the veil: invisibility. Not only is the veiled person invisible to the camera, but conversely the power projected by that surveillance is rendered invisible to the person veiled.