French minister says veil ban key to coexistence

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French Justice Michele Alliot-Marie on Sunday defended a government plan to ban the full Islamic veil in public, saying it is necessity for coexistence in France despite complaints from Muslims that it is an affront to their human rights.

"The first principle in France is religious freedom, respect for all religions and freedom of everyone to practise their religion. That is why we allow the construction of religious buildings all over the country," she told AFP in an interview in Jordan.

"A second thing to remember is that the Koran does not demand that women wear full veil -- all senior Muslim leaders in France say this regularly," she said of Islam's holy book.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government said last week it would push ahead with a ban on the full-face veil in public, including for Muslim tourists, despite state legal experts warning such a law could be unconstitutional.

"The second major principle in France is the rejection of communitarianism. The law treats everybody equally, and that's the basis of the unity of the republic," said Alliot-Marie, in Jordan for talks on legal cooperation.

"Before implementing the law, there will be a stage to educate people and explain why we want to do this."

She said the ban would help women integrate into society.

"Yes, we believe it will help them integrate. They can't stay at home all the time. And if their husbands prevent them from going out, then this is an illegal act that is punishable by law," she said.

The planned ban has been condemned by Muslim leaders outside France as an attack on religious freedom, although French politicians insist they are fighting to protect women's rights and French secular traditions.

In France the political repercussions were highlighted as Muslims in the city of Nantes complained of being stigmatised after a woman was fined for driving while wearing a veil.

"The Muslims of Nantes... are worried by this systematic stigmatisation which goes against the values of the republic," the collective of Nantes mosques said in a statement.

The association "considers that the stopping of a driver is a judicial procedure and is angry at how such an event has been turned into being all about Islam."

The woman has challenged the fine as a breach of her human rights, and the incident is gaining political momentum.

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has asked his colleague Eric Besson in immigration to inquire into the woman's husband, alleging that he may belong to a radical group and may be a polygamist with four wives and 12 children.

The Paris government has said a bill would be presented to ministers in May, seeking to ban the niqab and the burqa from streets, shops and markets and not just from public buildings.

It says only around 2,000 Muslim French women currently cover their faces. The niqab, which covers the face apart from the eyes, is widely worn on the Arabian peninsula and in Gulf states.

Last month, the State Council -- France's top administrative authority -- warned against a full ban on the veil, suggesting instead an order that women uncover their faces for security checks or meetings with officials.

© 2010 AFP

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