France moves to outlaw burqa

2010-01-24 14:35

Paris - France moves one step closer to barring Muslim women from wearing the full Islamic veil when a much-awaited report is released this week, laying the groundwork for a ban on the burqa.

After six months of hearings surrounded by fierce public debate, a commission set up by parliament will publish its findings on Tuesday on outlawing the full-face veil.

Home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, estimated at about six million, France is heading into unchartered territory. No European country has adopted sweeping national legislation on restricting the full veil.

President Nicolas Sarkozy set the tone for the debate when he declared the burqa "not welcome" in France and described it as a symbol of women's "subservience" which cannot be tolerated in a country that considers itself a human rights leader.

The 170-page report will recommend that parliament first adopt a resolution stating that the face-covering veil, known as the burqa or niqab, is an affront to French values and should be prohibited, a member of the panel said.

Denied service

A parliamentary source on Friday said the report would recommend the resolution be followed by legislation to ban the burqa in "public services" including hospitals, schools and transport.

Those breaching such a ban would not face punishment but would be refused service - for example a woman could be denied family welfare payments if she is wearing a veil when she turns up to collect them.

Politicians of all stripes have cautioned however that some time will be needed to craft a solid text that could stand up to a court challenge.

"I think that we are going to liberate a lot of women," said Andre Gerin, the communist deputy who chairs the commission and supports a ban.

Gerin has come out in favour of a broader law that would make it illegal for Muslim women to wear the full-face veil in state offices, schools, hospitals and even on the streets.

He also wants to take aim at the "French Taliban" - husbands, brothers and self-styled "gurus" who force women to cover themselves and has argued for penalties targeting them.

Lawmakers divided

Lawmakers however are divided on the scope of the restrictions, with many fearing that a draconian law would stigmatise Muslims who are already bristling at the anti-Islam rants heard during the government's national identity debate.

The leader of Sarkozy's right-wing party in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, has already presented draft legislation that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their faces in public for reasons of security.

Women caught wearing the full veil could be fined up to €750, according to his draft bill, which is not scheduled to come up for debate until after regional elections in March.

The parliamentary source said Tuesday's report however will stop short of calling for a full ban in all public spaces, judging it uncertain whether that would be practicable or constitutional.

Despite a large Muslim presence, the sight of fully-veiled women is not an everyday occurrence in France. Only 1 900 women wear the niqab, according to the interior ministry.

Half of them live in the Paris region and 90% are under 40.

Parliament's "burqa" commission called 180 people to testify - politicians, women's rights activists, French Muslim leaders, experts - and one woman who wears the full veil.

"We did listen a lot," said Socialist Daniele Hoffman-Rispal, a member of the panel. "And what we heard is that the issue is very complex and will not be solved simply by adopting a law."

Brown against ban

French support for a law banning the full veil is strong: a poll last week showed that 57% are in favour.

France's moves are being closely watched at a time of particular unease across Europe over Islam, three months after Swiss voters approved a ban on minarets.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen last week said his government was also considering restrictions on the all-encompassing veil.

The British government, responding to a petition by Muslim women for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to advise Sarkozy against a ban, said it "does not share France's views on secularisation", but the issue was "a matter for the French government".