French lawmakers to debate Islamic veil ban

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French lawmakers on Tuesday begin debating a bill banning the full Islamic veil that looks certain to be adopted despite fears of fresh tensions in the country with Europe's biggest Muslim minority.

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

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, the architect of the bill, insisted the law was about upholding French values of secularism, gender equality and promoting integration.

"The law is not about the veil, but about deliberately covering the face in any way," she was quoted as saying by the daily Liberation.

"It is not a question of religion," she said. "The republic lives with its face uncovered."

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.

The 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 could be unconstitutional.

Defending the bill, the leader of the right-wing governing majority in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, said ahead of the debate that "a total ban is the only possible solution."

The National Assembly lower house 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.

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 CFCM, a government advisory body, has repeatedly said that while he supports steps to discourage women from wearing the burqa, 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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