France prohibits niqab

The formal imposition on Monday of the French ban on the full-face veil, which led to the prompt arrest of two women protesting the law, has been accompanied by the usual government invocations of French values, as well as issues of security and gender equality.

But there’s no question about the real purpose of this giant step backward — or of an earlier law banning Muslim veils in schools, or the “debates” organized by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, Union for a Popular Movement, on “French identity” and secularism. They are all cynical attacks on Islam, the religion of about a tenth of France’s population, to curry favor with France’s increasingly anti-immigrant right wing.

Barring the niqab from government buildings, public services, streets and entertainment venues has been the most passionately debated of these measures, with some arguing that it is a symbol of the subjugation of women. But only a tiny handful of France’s five million to six million Muslims ever don the full veil, and their decision to do so is patently not the business of the government or the police.

The ban serves only to encourage the spread of Muslim-bashing in France and elsewhere in Europe, helped along by statements like this one from the interior minister, Claude Guéant, blatantly portraying Islam as a religion alien to France: “There is no reason why the nation should accord to one particular religion more rights than religions that were formerly anchored in our country.”

Fortunately, even some of Mr. Sarkozy’s own officials have seen through these ploys. The prime minister, François Fillon, quietly put an end to the embarrassing “national debate” on French identity a year ago, and, more recently, he refused to take part in a similarly tainted debate on secularism. All major religious leaders, including the Catholic archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, also shunned the discussion.

Mr. Sarkozy and the rest of his party should follow these examples and stop their shameless exploitation of intolerance for political gain.

 A version of this editorial appeared in print on April 12, 2011, on page A24 of the New York edition.
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