Banning the burka
PARIS As I write this blog, a young woman from the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois is breaking the law. Even while she is dropping off her three-year-old at nursery she is breaking the law.
For from today the wearing of full-face veils in France is banned. Overnight the woman from the suburb has become a dissenter. She says no law should tell her what she can't wear. She also believes that her faith trumps French law, and therein lies her problem in an avowedly secular French Republic.
Failure to obey the law could lead to a 150-euro (£133, $217) fine and being sent to citizenship classes. A criminal record might follow.
Perhaps, most significantly, anyone found forcing a woman to cover her face risks a 30,000-euro fine.
The burka or niqab is worn by very few in France - perhaps 2,000 women. The Muslim population is estimated at five million. Today - most probably - a few women will be defiant. Protesters against the new law are set to gather close to the flying buttresses of Notre Dame cathedral.
The police have orders to be restrained and respectful. The niqab-wearers, if any show up, will probably today be handed a leaflet. The authorities have printed 400,000 with the message that "the Republic lives with its face uncovered". A few women will see themselves as martyrs for a cause and already have their eye on the European Court of Human Rights. A businessman has offered to pick up any fines.
This law is about putting down a marker. As I have written before, many European leaders now believe that multiculturalism can lead to parallel, segregated communities. A new emphasis is being placed on minority communities integrating into the society they join, rather than just living as they did before. So Western societies are becoming more assertive about the values they uphold and the ones they expect others to respect.
Jean-Francois Cope, the French MP who has taken a lead over the burka ban, argues that seeing someone's face is key to human beings understanding each other. He sees the law as a step against separation.
The Muslim community is divided. It is made up of many voices and many views. Some believe it is important to become part of modern France. Some support the ban. Some don't. Some Muslim women wear headscarves. Many don't. Some believe that the Koran calls for a woman's face to be covered. Others say that such teachings appear in the works of scholars, not the Koran itself. There are Muslim women running companies; there are those discouraged from leaving their houses. Some wear dark headscarves, some are brightly coloured. A few hide their faces, while others are comfortable with heavy eye-liner and bright lipstick.
Ultimately this is an argument between those who believe that living in France demands that you sign up to certain French values and those who say that tolerance should allow you to dress how you want and to respect religious diversity.
The law is likely to be largely symbolic. There will be few prosecutions and it will be difficult to prove that a woman is being forced to wear a niqab because of her husband or family. Over time some women will choose not to wear it. Some shops stocking the niqab already say they will discontinue stocking it.
I suspect that this ban will generate a vibrant debate between Muslims. There are indications it has started already. Some say that the full-face veil is not a religious statement. It is purely cultural. Others say that it belongs to a strand of Islam. Others say that the wearing of headscarves is about asserting identity in a Western Europe that can still be frosty towards outsiders. Within traditional families there are daily arguments about how to live in a society that offers so much choice. Freedom can split families, as it has done with other religions.
What the French authorities want to avoid, at all costs, is a confrontation which could turn a debate about the covering of faces into whether the Muslim community is being singled out for special treatment.