France's Bill Prohibiting Facial Dissimulation in a Public Place does not specifically refer to Muslim women. Nowhere is the banning of the burqa and the niqab mentioned. Such are the lengths the French Government has gone to to disguise its target and its motives.

But nobody has been fooled about the intent of the new law and the intolerance at its heart. The nation that famously gave us liberte, egalite, fraternite is now telling women how to dress in the street.

President Nicolas Sarkozy does not paint it that way, of course. He portrays the ban as a defence of women's rights, and as standing firmly in the tradition of French liberalism and secularism. The veil is a symbol of male oppression, because Muslim women are bullied into wearing the niqab by their husbands.

That, in some cases, may be true andtherefore is offensive to modern Western values. Indeed, the requirement for women to cover themselves in public so men will not succumb to carnal impulses not only oppresses women but is insulting to men.

As such, nobody would expect most French people to respect such a code, no matter what religion it was a part of. But equally, nobody would expect a nation to be so intolerant of a religious practice that it would seek to dictate what its adherents can wear in public. A more tolerant society protects the rights and freedoms of even those with practices widely viewed as distasteful.

France's departure from this owes much to the political environment. President Sarkozy faces an election next year. He is polling poorly, and faces a strong challenge from Martine Le Pen's far right party.

France, like much of western Europe, has grappled over the past few years with the question of how far it should accommodate the resurgent religious sensitivities of its Muslim immigrants. Martine Le Pen's rise owes much to an outbreak of Islamophobia sparked by the growing number of Muslims in France. President Sarkozy knows this law will win him votes.

The problem is that stigmatising Islam in this manner risks a strong backlash from those who see their freedom of expression diminished. It seems that most of those who choose to wear the burqa or niqab in France are not oppressed.

Rather, they are young, French-born and recent converts to fundamental forms of Islam. This law will only harden their attitude and make them more open to radicalisation. There is a strong danger of it backfiring spectacularly and helping to create a more divided society.

At least the threat posed by escalation and confrontation appears to be understood. All parties, except hardline Islamists, are trying to take the heat out of the ban. The Government has told the police to avoid incidents.

Women wearing veils will not be ordered to remove them. Their names will be taken and repeat offenders may eventually be charged. Senior police, for their part, doubt the law can ever be enforced properly. If good sense prevails, its presence on the statute books will be treated with the sort of indifference a tolerant society shows those who want to wear a burqa.

The tolerance people feel towards difference and diversity is a good measure of a society's wellbeing. The French people should be asking where the burqa ban might lead. What practice could next be subject to the state deciding that its judgment should usurp personal choice?

Not that New Zealand can afford to be smug. Its own journey down that path - the banning of gang insignia in Wanganui - has been nipped in the bud. But this was a definite departure from our customary live-and-let-live attitude. New Zealand might also ponder where the path of intolerance leads.