Perhaps even more than America, France insists on the separation of church and state. France also strongly defends women's rights. Today, these two principles happen to coincide: girls in public high schools are not allowed to wear headscarves, female excision is outlawed, and so, too, is bigamy (although many Muslim immigrants manage to bring along two or three wives and numerous children).
The allegation that France has persecuted and segregated its Muslim population must be countered with this question: do the Muslims in France really want to integrate? And to what degree? Many have achieved a good education, gainful employment, and even public office. But many Muslims openly defy French customs and French law, such as the woman who would not remove her burqa during her civil wedding ceremony. The mayor refused to perform the ceremony.
Unlike the chador (the headscarf), the burqa is not an ancient Islamic commandment: nowhere is it mentioned in the Koran. Rather, it is a cultural and political invention given this religious justification: the mere sight of women arouses men's lust! Thus, it is purposefully designed to make women disappear entirely.
After coming to power, the Taliban brutally enforced the burqa in Afghanistan (and decreed that girls' education stop at the age of eight). A covering similar to the burqa -- the niqab or abaya, with mesh over the eyes or a metal band over the face -- is prevalent in many states in the Persian Gulf.
In the West, Muslim women in burqas often refuse to show their face for an ID photo, or when going through passport control. They have medical exams while still wearing their full burqa. Whether they are forced to do this by their families, or shamed into it, or brainwashed, these women have lost their identity and their autonomy. They are not being "protected"; they are being marginalized.
Of course, the paradox is that by hiding a woman and shielding her sexuality, you are actually drawing more attention to it! Freud would have a field day analyzing this counter-denial behavior.
I recall a cruise I took to Dubai several years ago. Our ship pulled into port and ten adorable little girls were lined up to greet us in song, wearing colorful costumes and shiny trinkets in their hair. Silently crouched in a row behind them were their mothers -- swathed in their black robes, peering through slits. That is what these little girls would grow up to be.
There are serious questions of equality and security and sanity involved here, which a free, democratic society must address. Following President Sarkozy's remarks, the French government will be examining the issue. I hope they will agree with him that "the burqa is not welcome in France"....nor anywhere else where human dignity, sexual equality, and social coherence exist.