French lawmakers to take final vote on full veil ban

12th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

French lawmakers take the final vote Tuesday on a law banning face-covering veils in public spaces, although the constitutional court may yet strike down the controversial measure before it comes into force.

The Senate vote follows one in the National Assembly that passed the law making wearing the garment in public illegal in July by 335 votes to one, with several other European countries mulling similar bans.

But opponents of the ban in its proposed form worry that it will eventually be overturned by the judges of the Constitutional Council, France's highest legal body.

While President Nicolas Sarkozy's determination to ban the niqab and the burqa has won enough political support to carry it, opponents argue that it breaches French and European human rights legislation.

The bill defines public space very broadly, including not just government buildings and public transport, but all streets, markets and thoroughfares, private businesses and entertainment venues.

Socialist and Communist deputies did not vote against the bill in July, they simply abstained, and it sailed through the vote without a hitch.

Similar laws are pending in Belgium, Spain and some Italian municipalities, but the ban is particularly sensitive in France, whose rundown city suburbs are home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority.

Critics say the law exploits a non-problem -- only about 1,900 women among France's five to six million Muslims wear a veil -- in a bid to pander to anti-immigration voters and to distract attention from France's economic woes.

Most French Muslims come from France's former colonies in North and West Africa, where wearing the veil is rare, rather than from the Arabian peninsula or Pakistan where niqabs and burqas are a cultural tradition.

Some Muslim leaders say they support steps to discourage women from wearing the full veil, but that a law would unfairly stigmatise a vulnerable group.

Mindful that a law with a broad scope might be struck down by the European court of human rights, which protects religious freedoms, Sarkozy's own ruling party has asked for the text to be examined by the Constitutional Council.

Meanwhile, the ban enjoys broad popular support. An international poll conducted in April and May by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that more than eight in 10 French voters supported a ban.

The same mood prevailed in Germany, where 71 percent backed a ban, in Britain, with 67 percent, and Spain with 65.

Under the bill, it would be illegal for anyone to cover their faces in public places like streets, parks, public transport or shops.

Fines of 150 euros (190 dollars) will be imposed on those caught wearing the veil, after a six-month grace period to allow time to educate Muslim women about the ban.

Men who force their wives or daughters to cover themselves for religious reasons face stiffer penalties of up to 30,000 euros and a one-year jail term.

The White House and Al-Qaeda have found a rare point of agreement in opposing the ban, with the State Department saying "We do not think that you should legislate what people can wear or not wear associated with their religious beliefs."

Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri issued an audio recording on the matter in July.

"My Muslim sisters, hold on to your hijab, even if it would cost you your money, education and jobs," Zawahiri said. "You are mujahedat (female holy warriors) in the most important battlefield."

© 2010 AFP

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