French parliament to take anti-burqa stand

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France will move a step closer towards outlawing the full Islamic veil on Tuesday when parliament adopts a formal resolution condemning the burqa as an affront to the nation's values.

The non-binding measure to be passed by the National Assembly will set the tone for debate in July on broad legislation barring Muslim women from wearing the full veil, known as the burqa or the niqab.

France is on course to become the second European country after Belgium to declare the face-covering veil illegal in public places, reviving the debate on Islam's place in Europe.

"All of France will say 'non' to the full veil and will ask that this practice be prohibited on the territory of the republic," speaker Bernard Accoyer told reporters.

Debate on the burqa ban has prompted warnings that it could provoke community tension in a country that is home to biggest Muslim minority, which estimated at between five and six million.

Supporters of the ban argue they are not attacking religious freedoms but rather upholding women's rights, with one prominent group saying the new law will liberate young Muslim girls growing up in France.

Opponents warn that the move will further stigmatise French Muslims by taking aim at a tiny minority -- fewer than 2,000 women, according to the interior ministry -- who wear the head-to-toe veil.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party and the opposition Socialists along with other smaller parties have all agreed to back the five-point resolution in the National Assembly.

Lawmakers will declare that "radical practices which violate the dignity and equality between men and women, such as the wearing of the full veil, are contrary to the values of the republic."

Parliament "deems it necessary that all useful means be put in place to ensure the protection of women who are subjected to violence and pressure and in particular are forced to wear the full veil," the resolution says.

It will be the first time that the National Assembly will vote on a resolution, a measure that was brought in under constitutional reform in 2008 to allow lawmakers to make a national statement.

Next week, Sarkozy's cabinet will examine a draft bill that will impose fines on women who wear the full veil while men convicted of forcing women to cover themselves could face up to one year in jail and a hefty fine.

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.

France's Council of the Muslim Faith, a government body created to improve inter-faith relations, has said that while it opposes the wearing of the full veil, a total ban risks making Muslims feel like outcasts.

Sarkozy has declared the burqa "not welcome" in secular France and is in favour of legislation to outlaw it, although he has also warned against stigmatising Muslims.

Coming on the heels of the government's national identity debate, the anti-burqa drive is seen by Sarkozy's critics as pandering to the far right.

"The first victims of this tactic will be Muslims in France who for the vast majority practice their religion with respect for humanist values and who love and serve the republic," said Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe.

"This government is playing with fire," the Socialist warned.

Sihem Habchi, the president of "Ni Putes Ni Soumises" (Neither Whores nor Submissives) women's rights group, praised the government's plan, saying "this is a new start for the emancipation of women in poor suburbs who will be given choices other than isolating themselves or facing a sort of social death."

The debate on the resolution is to begin at around 1430 GMT.

© 2010 AFP

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