The burqa ban on Muslim head covering that totally covers the face went into effect in France. Violators of the ban face a fine of €150 and a compulsory course reminiscent of courses for recidivist traffic violators.
This is creating an anomalous situation for French president Nicolas Sarkozy. In Africa, the French are heroes for being in the forefront of the fight to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Benghazi, the insurgent capital, is awash with French flags and placards thanking the French.
In the Ivory Coast, French special forces may have just extinguished the last embers of the Civil War by apprehending former president Laurent Gabago. In the Civil War the ousted leader represents the Catholic south of the country against the Muslim north and the French have openly sided with the latter.
Yet back in Metropolitan France, the French President has stuck with the ban that is directed at 2000 wearers of the veil out of a Muslim population of more than 7 million. It is important to recall that the French National Assembly passed the law with only one dissenter as the French left opposition joined in voting for the law couched in human rights terms. To paraphrase a line from an old feminist campaign in the United States, this veil discriminates against women. The left could not vote against a law that presumably advanced equality for women.
This is not how the law is being viewed elsewhere. The French Algerian newspaper Tout sur l'Algerie sees the law as an attempt to stigmatize the Muslims and concludes "one year away from the presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have decided to use Islam as an electoral argument against the extreme right."
It should be recalled that Algeria is fighting Muslim extremism and a French Algerian paper belongs to the secular trend, but they still see the law as an affront to their religion.
Their appraisal is probably correct; the law on the veil is the French equivalent of the Swiss law banning minarets and this accounts for its popularity in other parts of Europe. The Belgian Parliament passed a similar law before it was dissolved and according to polls, similar legislation would have an excellent chance of passing in Italy, Great Britain, Spain and Germany.
The French police are not particularly ecstatic about the law - the Secretary General of the Union of Police Commissioners Emmanuel Roux complained that the law was cumbersome and the police would try to adopt an educational rather than coercive role.
They would also use discretion and not try to enforce the law next to Metro stations and other crowded places or if the veil wearer was coming out of a mosque.
As opposed to the police desire to avoid the issue Muslim activists try to force it by staging a demonstration at Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral and aboard French rail's TGV high-speed train.
Even when forced to arrest demonstrators the police claimed that they were not arresting them because of wearing the veil but because of staging an unlicensed demonstration. Kenza Drider, a Muslim activist who led the demonstrations, threatened to sue France before the European Court of Human Rights. She might win.