France’s veil threat

France, which gave the English language the word “nuance,” is offering a nuanced justification for a bill that would outlaw “concealment of the face in public.” According to President Nicolas Sarkozy, the proposed measure should not be seen as an act of hostility toward Muslim women, only a small fraction of whom wear the full-face veil. Rather, the bill is designed to protect “personal dignity, particularly women’s dignity,” and the openness required of citizens in a republic.

This rationalization, however, needlessly complicates a simple reality. Banning the veil, even if justified on the grounds of assimilation, civility or women’s emancipation, is an act of religious discrimination.

Those who would be subject to the $185 fine would be almost exclusively Muslim women, who believe they are honoring a religious dictate. Yet for living by their faith, they would be subject not only to that penalty but also to demands by police that they remove the veil and identify themselves (a scenario that will sound familiar to Americans who have followed the controversy over Arizona’s notorious immigration law).

Like Switzerland’s recent ban on minarets, this legislation is a response to Muslim immigration and a reflection of Europe’s unease with some cultural expressions of Islamic culture. But just as the presence of minarets amid the Alps interferes with no one’s rights, the same is true of women who veil themselves in public. (The argument that veils could allow criminals to conceal themselves is far-fetched.)

In justifying the ban, Sarkozy appealed to the French tradition of laicite, a term that connotes a stricter separation of church and state and a more secular society than is mandated by the U.S. Constitution or found in other democracies.

But to the extent that laicite allows for blatant discrimination against religious practice, it is incompatible with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that everyone “has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Assimilating Islamic immigrants has been a challenge for several European countries, one that Americans sometimes minimize. It is also true that a minority of Muslims may reject the idea of pluralism and religious tolerance. But those very values argue against overreactions like the proposed ban on the wearing of veils, Sarkozy’s elegant explanation notwithstanding. France’s Parliament should reject the ban.