French 'burqa ban' goes before parliament
Mirroring moves in Belgium and Spain, lawmakers in France begin debate this week on a bill aimed at banning the full-face Islamic veil in the country with Europe's biggest Muslim minority.
The legislation would make it illegal to wear the face-covering veil anywhere in public and impose fines of 150 euros (190 dollars) to women caught in attire that President Nicolas Sarkozy has described as degrading to women.
The debate opening Tuesday at the National Assembly caps months of public wrangling over a move that is fraught with risk.
Legal experts warn the broad scope of the law banning the veil in all public places as opposed to state institutions could be struck down by the constitutional court.
Muslim leaders fear it will stoke tensions by stigmatising France's estimated five to six million Muslims, many of whom live in the volatile suburbs.
Defending the move, Prime Minister Francois Fillon made the rare gesture of inaugurating a mosque in a Paris suburb last week, drinking mint tea and eating dates with Muslim leaders.
Fillon said Muslims who wear face coverings are "hijacking Islam" by providing a "dark and sectarian image" of the religion that is "the opposite of the French Islam that you have contributed to build."
That message has been well-received by most Muslims in France who see the burqa or the niqab as foreign to their religious practices, but still, the debate has stirred resentment over what is seen as a fringe phenomenon.
Fewer than 2,000 women wear the full-face veil in France, according to the interior ministry.
The bill, set to go to the Senate in September for a final vote, would make it illegal for reasons of security for anyone to cover their face in public.
To avoid stoking tensions, the law would however give police some leeway to waive penalties and instead order offenders to enroll in a "citizenship course" to better understand French secularism.
Husbands who force their wives or daughters to wear the full veil face a hefty fine of up to 30,000 euros and a one-year jail term, according to the draft legislation.
No penalties will be applied in the first six months after its adoption.
France has been caught up in a year-long "burqa debate" as moves to outlaw Muslim face coverings have gained ground elsewhere in Europe.
In Belgium, a new bill banning the wearing of face veils in public is awaiting Senate approval.
In Spain, the government has announced plans to restrict the wearing of full veils in public places under a proposed new law on religious freedom.
The mayor of Barcelona last month said he will outlaw the garment in his city and the regional parliament of Catalonia is also considering a motion to bar women from wearing the full veil.
At the European level, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has said that banning the full veil is a matter for national governments to decide and that there are no plans for EU-wide measures.
But the 47-nation Council of Europe last month adopted a resolution advising governments against adopting all-out bans on the full veil, stating that it was important to protect womens' right to wear religious attire.
French politicians have said the law will also apply to wealthy tourists from the Middle East and the Gulf who are often seen fully veiled in luxury shops on the Paris boulevards.
© 2010 AFP