Two years ago, France’s highest court denied citizenship to a Muslim woman on the grounds that she had not assimilated into French society. I agreed to defend her before the European Court of Human Rights. I could have emphasized religious freedom; I raised the argument, but there was an easier way to show that the court had gone astray.

French law gives two tests of assimilation: knowledge of the language and absence of a criminal record. My client spoke fluent French and had no criminal record. But reports of interviews by social workers said that she had showed up wearing a niqab. On that basis, the court concluded that she practiced a form of religion incompatible with equal rights of men and women.

I argued that to allow an official to judge a failure to assimilate without providing criteria was to invite arbitrary decisions. The Human Rights Convention prohibits governments from acting arbitrarily. The case is currently pending before the European Court.

In 2009, the French equivalent of the FBI reported that the practice of wearing a veil was “marginal.” There appeared to be only 367 women in all of France who wore the niqab. A second police agency confirmed the initial report. Subsequent work increased the estimate to a maximum of 2,000 women.
With over 30 million women in France the phenomenon did indeed appear marginal. None of the reports said the women were a danger; no post office, bank or other institution complained that veiled women were a problem.