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France must look beneath the burqa

President Sarkozy assails the veil, but he neglects the women who wear it.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s call this summer to ban , the full-body covering for Muslim women, has generated much heat but little light. This controversy is just the latest episode in the messier conflict over French identity and social cohesion.

By condemning as a symbol of male oppression, however, Mr. Sarkozy ignored these underlying issues and may end up pushing some women further to the margins of French society.

France has taken bold steps in recent years to preserve its secular character amid a rapidly growing Muslim population. In 2004, it banned head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Last year, a court denied citizenship to a burqa-wearing Moroccan immigrant, saying that her radical religious practice was at odds with French values.

In his speech to the French parliament June 22, Sarkozy declared that the is not simply a religious issue. He is right. It is a French issue, one that brings into question the very core of French identity.

By their very existence, women wearing the embrace a kind of public distinctiveness at odds with the fundamental egalitarian character of French society; symbolically undermining the secularism and national unity upon which modern France rests.

Since its revolution, in 1789, France has been willing to incorporate ethnic and religious minorities into the larger society, but only so long as those minorities were prepared to keep their ethnic and religious traditions strictly within the private sphere.

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