Besson and a woman thought to be his fiancee Tordjman,  a 24-year-old Tunisian art student, at a soc
French minister Eric Besson and a woman thought to be his fiancee Tordjman, a 24-year-old Tunisian art student. Photo by Sipa Press / Rex Features
Text size

The Wikipedia entry devoted to Eric Besson is nothing special. It includes information about his marriage to Sylvie Brunel from 1983 to 2009 and their three children, the eldest of whom is 21 and a writer. Pretty normal, almost.

What it doesn't say is that the 52-year-old Besson, who is Minister of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Mutually-Supportive Development in the French government, is living with a 24-year-old Muslim art student from Tunisia by the name of Yasmine Tordjman, whom he plans to marry in September.

That fact is just juicy gossip until one realizes that Besson is the cabinet minister who initiated and planned the law in France to ban public use of the burka, a veil worn by observant Muslim women that leaves only a slit open for the eyes.

Besson - who described the burka as a "walking coffin" - won near unanimous support for the law forbidding the covering of one's face in public places in the French Parliament. According to the law, which passed last month, women in veils or men who force their wives to wear a burka (as is accepted in Afghanistan ) or a niqab (the version more popular in Arab countries ) can be fined or imprisoned for up to one year.

The legislation is now awaiting approval from the Senate and then too will go into effect only after a six-month period to acclimate the burka-wearers.

However, a heavy shadow hangs over Besson's political success. According to the French-language website Bakchich.info, Besson visited Tunis at the end of last year with his fiancee, to attend the wedding of the daughter of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Following that, the two went to the home of Tordjman's parents where the minister met his future in-laws and promised them that this was no passing love affair, that his intentions were serious and he wanted to marry their daughter.

This clarification is important when taking into account that his divorced wife wrote about him in a book she published - including the number of extra marital affairs he had while married to her.

The minister didn't just profess his love for Tordjman, though, he also professed his love for Islam, promising his bride-to-be's grandmother that he would convert once they were married, according to Bakchich.

The minister hastily filed a suit for slander against the editors of the site when they published the report last February, but was forced to withdraw the suit just as hastily after the court made it clear to him that there was nothing slanderous about publishing that a person wished to take on another religion. Even in a secular country like France, it is not considered a crime.

Now the minister is faced with a serious dilemma: If he denies his intention of converting to Islam, he will probably have to contend with his in-laws. If he converts, he will be forced to deal with the consequences of his initiative against the burka, since a good Muslim cannot legislate a law that could harm Muslims.

Tordjman's grandmother, incidentally, is Wassila Bourguiba, the second wife of Tunisian founding president Habib Bourguiba, who ruled until 1987.

For his part, the minister was born in the Moroccan city of Marakesh to a Lebanese mother and a French father but has visited Lebanon only once in his life.

Solutions unveiled

The law against the burka has led to another innovation. Muslim sages who wish to prevent a confrontation between observant Muslim women and the current environment in Europe, are being forced to find solutions that keep with both religious law and the law of the land.

The late Sheikh Muhammed Sayyid Tantawi, the former head of Cairo's al-Azhar University, ruled a few years ago that Muslim women who live in a non-Muslim country must act like visitors and respect the ways of life of that country.

Tantawi himself prohibited women students at al-Azhar from wearing veils on campus and supported the Egyptian government's decision to dismiss women clerks from the Egyptain civil service if they came to work in a veil.

Last week, the important Saudi Arabian thinker, Aid al-Qarni, said that Muslim tourists who went to France would do best if they behaved according to the rules and regulations there.

"We must not be in confrontation either in the countries where we are citizens or in those countries we visit as guests only. We must react with flexibility to the French decision. Our religion instructs us to adjust our behavior to the times, to the place and to emergency situations," he said.

Despite the fact that the law has not yet gone into effect, this ruling is important in view of the fact that the tourist season is peaking in France and that many Muslims decided to cancel their plans to visit France following the vote in parliament.

According to figures released by the director of a Saudi air company, the volume of tourists from Saudi Arabia to Britain and Austria has increased by 120 percent.

Will the expected loss of revenue make France and other countries that plan to adopt a law against veils think twice about enforcing it? That is doubtful.

But meanwhile it has succeeded in dividing Europe, in Muslim eyes, into two camps - the sane West that does not get upset by a veil as a religious and social symbol, and the frightened West that gets scared by a few thousand women who wear veils, a tiny minority.

After all, the law has not led to a reduction in the number of Muslims in the West, it merely tries to hide the fact that they exist. One may recall how Europe behaved in the past when it decided to get rid of "strangers" in its midst.