Brush up your Hegel, Sarko

Nicolas Sarkozy's problem is that he hasn't read enough Hegel. Let me rephrase that: one of his problems is that he hasn't read enough Hegel. When the French president told a special session of parliament in Versailles earlier this week, "We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity", he would have done better to hold his tongue, and instead reflect on that passage in the Philosophy of Right in which Hegel distinguishes between abstract and concrete freedom.

The former means the freedom to do whatever you want, which, as you know, is the basis of western civilisation and why you can choose between 23 different kinds of coffee in your local cafe, or 32 different kinds of four-inch wedges the glossies tell you look sexy this summer but in none of which you can walk comfortably. Such is the freedom of late capitalism, which seems to systematically strive to deprive us of an identity that we might construct ourselves.

For Hegel this isn't real freedom, because our wants and desires are determined by society. By those lights, a western fashion victim is as much a sartorial prisoner as a woman in a burka.

Neither is really free. Those that must buy what someone else tells them are this season's must-haves are as much in mental chains as those who put on head-to-toe garment with netting for the eyes because of the strictures of the society to which they belong.

By real freedom, Hegel meant not doing whatever one wants but having the freedom from societal conditioning and the fatuous whirl of desires by using reason. If you come across someone who manages to be really free in this sense in either capitalistic or strict Islamic society then send me their names so we can celebrate their escape.

None of us is really free in that sense. I used to think otherwise. I once wrote an article under the headline "If only we were more like the French: Call me a chippy atheist, but I'd rather see a headscarf ban than Muslim ghettoes". I thought forcibly liberating people from their mental and sartorial shackles would make us free. I was wrong. Now I believe the creation of Muslim ghettoes is made more likely by official displays of intolerance towards what some Muslim women wear, that the social integration France overtly seeks through its policy of laïcité, or secularism, is less likely. One of the reasons for this shift is because of thinking about what Hegel means about freedom in thesociety to which I belong.

Yes, but, you might well want to say, surely women who wear burkas are more oppressed than those who treat the sartorial laws of Grazia as though they were truly the words of God (which, as you know, they are)? None of what I've said means that I feel anything but depressed when I see a woman in a burka, but that's my problem, something that I can't resolve in the way Sarkozy suggests. What's striking in Sarkozy's speech is that it is yet again a man who denounces women and presumes that they are cut off from social life. They may be cut off from Sarkozy's secular French society, and that may be difficult for allegedly tolerant western liberals, but they are not cut off from all society. In fact they're very much part of the society that many westerners despise as oppressing women.

Sarkozy's remarks, though they're bound to upset some of France's five million Muslims, are consistent with French revolutionary culture and the tradition of laïcité that led, in 2004, to the banning of headscarfs in French schools. Doesn't he realise then that his speech exemplifies an abstract freedom of expression which, in Hegelian terms, proceeds from social conditioning, not reason? It seems unlikely. For French political culture, religion is tolerable only if it keeps itself to itself. As soon as a person of faith tries to present what religion means for them in public in France, they risk being accused of fundamentalism.

Sarkozy now goes further, following revolutionary logic in not just chasing those who dress in ways he and French political culture finds intolerable out of public spaces, but pursuing those who dress in a way that is a rejection of western values even into their private worlds. He said: "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic". Even religious justification is bad enough, run the suppressed premises of this argument, but the absence of such despicable justifications is worse.

The woman in a burka is revealed as subservient to patriarchal culture. She must be made free to choose to be more western. Sarkozy proposes, in giving his backing to the establishment ofa parliamentary commission to look at whether to ban the wearing of burkas in public, that such imposed freedom would improve her lot.

French venerate such abstract freedoms. We needn't. They were, for Hegel, the basis of the revolution's collapse into the Terror in which, he argued, individuals were sacrificed to the ill-conceived pursuit of abstract freedoms. Sarkozy is thus a modern-day Robespierre, proposing some women – whom he presumes to have been silenced by patriarchal society and whose voices he doesn't want to hear –be terrorised in the name of the kind abstract freedoms France has venerated for 210 years. Let's see if he succeeds.

Stuart Jeffries, who has been a Guardian subeditor, TV critic, Friday Review editor, Paris correspondent and is now a feature writer and columnist for the paper.