Every Organized Religion has tenants of the faith, outward expressions of internal beliefs. Many express their belief via symbolic clothing and other acts. The religion often requires the believers to perform these acts as part of being a member in good standing. The core question then becomes, is the adherent doing these things because they want to, or because they are being forced too.
That is what the French Republic is dealing with; it is central issue behind the question of the Veil. It is a question of core values and, ultimately, what it means to be French. The French do thing a little differently, in many ways they are an outlier in Western Europe. It has much to do with French Culture and French History. They have Traditions in France, the capitol "T" is there for a reason, traditions are outsized in France. One of the most central Traditions is laïcité; think of it as separation of church and state on steroids. It comes from a very special place; it comes from a to-the-death struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the Republican intellectual elites. It was a long struggle that began with the Revolution and ended with the resolution of the Dreyfus affair. The church found itself very much on the outside looking in. France became a rigidly secular governance, with the Church severely constrained.
Into this cultural buzz-saw walked the Islamic Diaspora from Frances' former colonial possessions. Thus did a sartorial statement of faith become a political football for French Politicians to kick about. Into a culture that barely tolerated Christian crucifixes on its largely Roman Catholic citizens came these Muslimas, clad head-to-foot in a religiously required garb. Never mind that the number of women who actually were the veil, the niqab as it is known in Islamic circles, was ridiculously small, no more than two thousand women in a French population of sixty-two Million; a law was required to stamp it out.
It a curious thing, how so few women can present an existential threat to the Norms of the French Republic; but there you are. It is a confluence of globalization, post-colonial detritus, cultural assumptions, religion, tradition and more than a little of fear and loathing. The French cling to their myth of citizenship so tightly that they refuse to see where it fails a large portion of the population. The immigrant community instead of blending into the larger French nation has instead become encapsulated in their separate communities. For decades the French Republic has channeled the modus operandi of Alfred E. Newman on this unpleasant fact "what, me worry?"
The immigrants finally became noticed when they rioted; not the best of ways to call attention to one's grievances. Still the Islamic cohort of the French Republic is now front and center. There is an honest question of how much latitude the French Government has enforcing what it considers its core values. In the end the immigrants did make a choice to move from a society informed by Islam to a society informed by Western Secularism.
That secularism comes from a place. It comes from a long struggle of the Secular authority to impose its will over the religious authority. The church was slowly and firmly ejected from many core functions of society. The triumph of modern secular capitalism is manifest.
Perhaps instead of looking at the symptoms of this particular phenomenon, it would be best to figure out how to reinforce our core values. This is very tricky question because it goes to the core of what it means to be free. Freedom is not necessarily liberty. Often they are at odds. Narrowing the question down it again becomes a question of how those fists are being swung and which noses are in danger.
The French state is vigorously swinging away for female rights. It does this out of a conviction that religion can and does oppress women. Laïcité as interpreted by the French means that just the physical example of a woman in full Islamic attire is Oppressive to other females. It is an imposition of religion not allowed in the public sphere. It is an odd idea to U.S. eyes but it is very French. The French elites are also convinced that no woman would dress in such a way except via some sort of outside compulsion. The full Islamic garb has been described as a "walking prison." The French also rightly point out that the requirement is not required of men; that it is a matter of equal rights for women.
It is an incredibly dense thicket because the outfit can be justified as a matter of personal religious belief. The counter to this is a purely secular argument that the requirements of that faith fall far too harshly on women. What is a good egalitarian nation like France to do? It is a conflict of two goods, or at least two fundamental rights. One right is the right to follow the dictates of your heart. It is the right of conscience. The other is the right of individual freedom, the right to be free from the constraints of hierarchy and oppression. It is the right to one's individual self, free from domination. It is the right of minorities' writ large, or is that very small? We are after all talking about the most finite of minorities, the minority of one.
Even if one sees Islam as a misogynist, oppressive, backwards, ignorant, contradictory faith does not a person have the right to follow its precepts, if they do it of their own free will? An individual must have the right, correct? Should that individual also have the right to pass down their beliefs onto their progeny? This is yet another slippery path to navigate once real world consideration crop up. After all a strict reading of Islam requires that the faithful kill apostates. The state really cannot this. The state cannot allow private individuals to slaughter its citizens without as much as a mother-may-I. The state cannot allow a religious organization to impinge on its monopoly of lethal powers. As the protector of the rights of its citizens, the progressive state must intervene against the excesses of private organizations as well as private individuals. The Koran may allow a husband to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb; the State of California on the other hand will not look upon that explanation with any sympathy at a criminal trial.
The modern state does insist on a monopoly of power on a range of matters. It is in constant conflict and constant negotiation with the individual and with groups of individuals on exactly where that monopoly ends. The modern secular state even insists on the ability to protect the individual from themselves or from their family members. Sometimes it does so in a negative way, holding parents accountable for decisions that bring harm to minor children. The state even reserves the right to strip away children from their parents if the parents are acting in way that the state, though its laws, has declared out of bounds. Firmly held religious beliefs, the argument that the parents are following the dictates of their faith, is no guarantee that the state will not act, intervening against the parents. Religious beliefs are no protection against a criminal complaint the government may bring against the parents. In France the state even reserves the ability to deny citizenship if it finds one's religious values unacceptable.
Is this a bridge too far? Is France over-reacting to a "threat" that a more relaxed nation might find insubstantial? Or does the full-face veil of Muslimas violate core French values in such a way that it cannot be allowed under any circumstances? Nations do have the right to set minimal standards for citizenship, especially for people who are not native born. France does have the right to bar immigrants who it feels are a detriment to the society as a whole. The only question is, does a certain behavior rise to the bar of dismissal? Is requiring one's wife to wear "modest" clothing because of a religious belief beyond the French pale? With the long French history of Laïcité, one hundred years and counting, plus the egalitarian traditions dating back to the French Revolution, the answer on first blush seems to be "yes."
Immigrants do make a decision when they leave their native lands. By settling in a foreign land they are accepting that they will have to conform to the rules and mores of that land. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, as the saying goes. It is up to the immigrant to adjust to the new larger society, not for the larger society to submit to every possible whim of the newcomer. If you are devout Muslim, you're just going to have put up with the sinful ways of the host country, no matter how icky they may be. More to the point, the host country has every right to stop being a host if your behavior fails to meet what it believes are minimum standard. France has the right to determine that it has enough native-born misogynist jerks as it is; it certainly has no need to import more. Is this biased, arbitrary, and unfair? Most likely it is all three and more; still the nation of France has every right to be so. By immigrating to France a person has made an implicit agreement that they would conform what the French believe is the essential French nature. The immigrant has implicitly agreed that his or her behavior will fall within certain parameters and he or she will follow rules, traditions, and social norms of the French Republic. The very act of persistent inhabitation of the territory of France begins the implied agreement. It grants rights to the person but it also incurs responsibilities. Failure to meet those responsibilities, failure to meet the minimum obligations of citizenship is sufficient cause for the Nation, France in this case, to insist that the immigrant leave.
In a perfect world legal rights and responsibilities would never conflict. In a perfect world there would be no need for laws in the first place. In the world we live in, rights and responsibilities do clash. No right is absolute; every right is in some ways constrained, if only by another right. The right of individual conscience does conflict with the right of individual freedom. The right of the government to enhance the general welfare and ensure domestic tranquility does conflict, and sometimes trumps, individual liberty. Respect for other cultures and other religions have their limits, responsible governments do have to set some ground rules. The only real question is what those rules are.