France bans the burqa today. More exactly, no one is allowed to cover their faces in public any more, whether it's a burqa or a balaclava (with a few exceptions, like wearing a crash helmet if you're riding a bike, or a safety mask if you're operating dangerous machinery). The French government has an official website
to explain the new rules under a stirring headline, 'La République se vit à visage découvert' - which is a play on words meaning the Republic lives both 'with uncovered face' and 'openly'.
If you disobey, you face a fine of 150 euros. If somebody else is forcing you to cover your face, they face a year in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros. It's serious stuff.
So why is France doing this? It's definitely going to affect the 2,000 or so Muslim women who wear a full-face veil, or niqab. The official line is that concealing your face undermines France's common values, and is inconsistent with the Republic's principles of liberty, equality and human dignity.
Cynics take a different view. They argue that Nicolas Sarkozy is desperate to bump up his popularity in the ratings because of the presidential elections in a year's time. France has one of the largest Muslim populations in europe, and Marine Le Pen's National Front is gathering more and more support. Maybe Sarkozy thinks that legislation to outlaw veils will make him more popular with the far right.
Of course it's possible that France is just scoring an even deeper line round its much-treasured secular state. In 2004, Jacques Chirac banned religious symbols in schools - which, as supporters pointed out, referred equally to crucifixes and headscarves. But it's equally possible, say the critics, that France is being totally racist. France doesn't, after all, have a great track record when it comes to welcoming immigrants.
But while this is all very interesting, most of the British chatter about the French ban isn't bound up with Sarkozy, or the secular state, or whether France has ever been nice to Algerians. Most of us are wondering whether British politicians are going to look over the Channel and think - hmm, is this what the British public wants, too?
There has, after all, been plenty of noisy debate over the past five years. Remember when MP Jack Straw caused a storm in 2006? He wrote in his local paper, the Lancashire Telegraph
, that he always asked women who came to his surgery to remove their veils because he felt they were a barrier to communication. He talked about his concern "that wearing the full veil was bound to make better relations between the two communities more difficult". It was, he said, "a visible statement of separation and of difference".
Then there was teaching assistant Aishah Azmi who was sacked from Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, for refusing to remove her veil in school if a man was present. She lost her employment tribunal case, and also lost on appeal. So is Britain heading for a ban, too?
There are all sorts of arguments in favour, ranging from the slightly batty (a terrorist could hide a bomb under a burqa - which is true, but weird, as this summer's maxi dresses could be equally dangerous) to the rather more persuasive (communication relies on reading expressions, so a teacher or lawyer wearing a veil can't do her job properly).
But all of these anguished discussions rumble on for only so long before you run headlong into the issue of freedom. If I stop you wearing a niqab, can you stop me wearing a short skirt? Should we insist that men cover up their sweaty backs on a summer's day in Sainsbury's? If I criticise you for adopting a form of dress that shows only your eyes and your hands, can you criticise me for sunbathing semi-naked on a beach in Bournemouth? Western women find the full-face veil disconcerting. We wonder whether it's a free choice or a cultural imposition. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Salma Yaqoob were arguing this very point in the Guardian
a few days ago. Faced with a woman in a niqab, we think - what are you saying? That you're protecting yourself from the lascivious male gaze? That women should behave one way and men another? That my clothes are tarty?
In the UK, we're not used to people covering their heads completely. It's something we associate with bank robbers and brides (and I'm not sure a few minutes of frothy white net counts). Generally, if you've got something over your head, you're being tortured or punished. Or you're the Grim Reaper. It's not something we associate with happy smiling people.
I hope no one suggests that we follow France. Once we start laying down laws about what people wear, we're chipping away at personal freedom. But it's also OK to say that a full-face veil, worn in the UK, has significance both for the woman who wears it, and the woman who sees it.
To you it may mean liberation, or the outward sign of a spiritual journey. To me, it's a wall that stops us communicating.