The French have banned the Burqa and the Niqab. The new law passed 355-1 (with the Socialists shamefully abstaining) bans both the wearing a face covering, which is lightly penalised by a £120 fine, and the forcing of someone to wear a face covering, which is heavily penalised by a year in jail and/or £25,000 fine.
This law has drawn criticism and praise in roughly equal measure. Burqas are vile symbols of oppression, but criminalising them is never the answer. I agree with Carl when he approvingly quotes Kenan Malik:
The burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women, not its cause. If legislators really want to help Muslim women, they could begin not by banning the burqa, but by challenging the policies and processes that marginalize migrant communities: on the one hand, the racism, social discrimination and police harassment that all too often disfigure migrant lives, and, on the other, the multicultural policies that treat minorities as members of ethnic groups rather than as citizens. Both help sideline migrant communities, aid the standing of conservative ‘community leaders’ and make life more difficult for women and other disadvantaged groups within those communities.
But, I don’t want to dwell on the politics of this. I don’t know enough about French Parliamentary politics to enlighten you and I consider this ban unambiguously wrong-headed on principle.
Instead, what I want to highlight is that few people want to defend this law as a necessary firkin of authoritarianism in our sea of liberalism; even though few things are as petty and illiberal as banning a particular type of clothing.  Many people seem comfortable defending the idea of a ban as a liberal measure in itself. The intellectual contortion involved in describing a ban as liberal is quite fascinating to behold. If we start from Mill’s Harm Principle it is hard to see how we could justify this ban:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
But justify it they do! Of course there are limits to liberalism embodied in this principle and if you squint your eyes and tilt your head just so, then you can just about make out how a law banning some clothing can be liberal. Below are these (poor) liberal authoritarian arguments distilled:
- People are entitled to freedom of religion, but I don’t think wearing a Burqa is a religious obligation, therefore banning it is not illiberal.
- These women are currently oppressed by their spouse/father/brother therefore using the oppressive power of the state to ban their activities actually empowers them. They are all being harmed by the burqa therefore banning it is not illiberal.
- A burqa is a disguise which can be used by criminals. As crime causes harm to others the state should act to prevent it, that is why it has a monopoly on legitimate violence within a certain area. Burqas are little more than disguises for criminals, therefore banning it is not illiberal.
I’ve seen all these arguments deployed and every one of them torn down. What the weaknesses of these arguments show is that liberalism is in the ascendant even as we continue to see authoritarianism around us. It is now deeply unfashionable to be an authoritarian.
I don’t think this is a positive development.
Mill deployed the Harm Principle with a reasonably well delineated concept of harm. However, recently harm has taken on a more and more diffuse meaning. From left wingers supporting a smoking ban to prevent “harm” to bar staff to right wingers suggesting that burqas “harm” people by being an effective disguise, this unfocussed us of “harm” weakens the cause of liberalism as a positive political philosophy.
The language of liberalism has become the language used to legitimate coercion. Quite often coercion is necessary and just, but all too often coercion is deployed not to protect people, but to impose a tyranny against an otherwise law-abiding minority. If authoritarians are not exposed for what they are, and their capture of liberalism not challenged, fighting for people’s freedoms from a principled and pragmatic liberal perspective will become impossible.
Sadly authoritarianism hasn’t gone away, it has just but on a disguise. 
 The pettiness confuses me the most. Why even bother banning the burqa and niqab when under 2000 people wear these sorts of veils? I guess this is why I’d make a bad authoritarian, if I was a legislator you couldn’t get me out of bed for that sort of nonsense.
 Probably a burqa…
[This is rather good too, from Laurie Penny]