French lawmakers debate Muslim veil ban

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The French parliament on Tuesday began debating a ban on the full Islamic veil that is all but certain to be adopted despite fears of renewed tensions in the country with Europe's biggest Muslim minority.

Security was tightened at the parliament building in central Paris ahead of the debate, with guards using sniffer dogs as they secured the main assembly hall, nearby meeting rooms, rooftop and hallways.

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told deputies that wearing a face-covering veil "amounted to being cut off from society and rejecting the very spirit of the French republic that is founded on a desire to live together."

"At a time where our societies are becoming more global and complex, the French people are pondering the future of their nation. Our responsibility is to show vigilance and reaffirm our commonly-shared values," she said.

Debate on the Muslim face coverings, also known as the burqa or the niqab, has raged in France for a year, with President Nicolas Sarkozy describing them as degrading to women.

Critics however see the bill as a political ploy to pander to far-right voters by taking aim at a tiny minority of Muslim women -- about 1,900, according to the interior ministry -- who wear the full veil.

Under the bill, it would be illegal in France for anyone to cover their faces in public places like streets, parks, public transport or shops, imposing fines of 150 euros (190 dollars) on those caught wearing the veil.

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

Opposition Socialists have long argued that the ban should be restricted to state institutions, echoing the view of the State Council high administrative body which has said a blanket ban risks being struck down as unconstitutional.

Opening the three-day debate at the National Assembly, the justice minister said a partial ban as advocated by the Socialists would be "legally incoherent and difficult to enforce from a practical point of view.

"How could we convince the French people that freedom, equality and respect for the dignity of women begins in the train station but stops at the exit?" she said.

The National Assembly will vote on the bill on July 13 following debate this week and the draft will then go to the Senate for final approval in September.

Only three deputies from the Green Party have said they will oppose the bill, while the Socialists decided to boycott the vote in protest at the sweeping ban that will apply to all public places.

Similar laws are pending in Belgium and Spain, but the ban is particularly sensitive in France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority.

Muslim leaders fear it will stoke tensions by stigmatising France's estimated five to six million Muslims, many of whom live in volatile city suburbs.

Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, a government advisory body, has repeatedly said that while he supports steps to discourage women from wearing the full veil, a law would send the wrong message.

"Rather than enacting a law barring women from expressing their malaise, we should think about what prompted them to want to cover themselves," Moussaoui told lawmakers at a meeting in May.

To avoid tensions, the law would give police leeway to waive penalties and instead order offenders to enrol in a "citizenship course" to better understand French secularism.

No penalties will be applied in the first six months after its adoption.

French politicians have said the law will also apply to tourists from the Middle East and the Gulf who are often seen fully veiled in luxury shops on the Paris boulevards.

© 2010 AFP

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