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French report calls for burqa ban

Paris – A French parliament report called Tuesday for a ban on the full Islamic veil, saying Muslim women who wear the burqa were posing an "unacceptable" challenge to French values.

After six months of hearings, a panel of 32 lawmakers recommended a ban on the face-covering veil in all schools, hospitals, public transport and government offices, the broadest move yet to restrict Muslim dress in France.

"The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable," the report said. "We must condemn this excess."

The commission however stopped short of proposing broad legislation to outlaw the burqa in the streets, in shopping centres and other public venues after raising doubts about the constitutionality of such a move.

"The wearing of the full veil is the tip of the iceberg," said communist lawmaker Andre Gerin, the chair of the commission, who presented the report to the parliament speaker.

"There are scandalous practices hidden behind this veil," said Gerin who vowed to fight the "gurus" he said were seeking to export a radical brand of fundamentalism and sectarianism to France.

Tensions flared at the last minute when a group of right-wing lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully for a tougher measure to ban the burqa in all public venues.

In the end, the commission called on parliament to adopt a resolution stating that the all-encompassing veil was "contrary to the values of the republic" and proclaiming that "all of France is saying ‘no’ to the full veil".

The National Assembly resolution would pave the way to legislation making it illegal for anyone to appear with their face covered at state-run institutions and in public transport, for reasons of security.

Women who turn up at any government building wearing the full veil would be denied services such as a work visa, residency papers or French citizenship, the report said.

The opposition Socialists refused to endorse the final report, to protest the government’s launching of a debate on national identity, which has exposed French fears about Islam.

Critics of the "burqa debate" have warned that it risks stigmatising France’s six million Muslims and describe the wearing of the garment as a marginal phenomenon affecting few women.

But President Nicolas Sarkozy sought Tuesday to reassure France’s estimated six million Muslims, saying in a speech at a cemetery for French Muslim soldiers that freedom to practise religion was enshrined in the constitution.

"Our country, which has known not only wars of religion but also fratricidal battles due to state anti-clericalism, cannot let French Muslim citizens be stigmatised," he said at Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery in northern France.

An imam in Drancy, a northeastern suburb of Paris, who recently backed a ban on the full veil, calling it a "prison for women", complained to police on Tuesday after around 80 people burst into his mosque and threatened him late on Monday.

The intruders seized the microphone in front of 200 worshippers and called the imam, Hassen Chalgoumi, an "infidel" before threatening to "liquidate" him, a councillor from the Conference of Imams, which Chalgoumi leads, told AFP.

Chalgoumi said he would not be intimidated by the threats, saying the intruders wanted "extremism and hatred" towards Christian and Jewish communities.

Despite a large Muslim presence, the sight of fully-veiled women is not common in France. Only 1,900 women wear the burqa, according to the interior ministry.

Half of them live in the Paris region and 90 percent are under 40.

Home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority, France is being closely watched at a time of particular unease over Islam, three months after Swiss voters approved a ban on minarets.

Sarkozy set the tone for the debate in June when he declared the burqa "not welcome" in France and described it as a symbol of women’s "subservience" that cannot be tolerated in a country that considers itself a human rights leader.

French support for a law banning the full veil is strong: a poll last week showed 57 percent are in favour.

The leader of Sarkozy’s right-wing party in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, has already presented draft legislation that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their faces in public.

The bill is not expected to come up for debate before regional elections in March.

In 2004, France passed a law banning headscarves and any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools after a long-running debate on how far it was willing to go to accommodate Islam in its strictly secular society.

Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria are also studying measures to ban the full veil.

What’s in a headscarf:
Conservative Muslim women cover their hair in an array of fashions — French members of parliament are keen to outlaw some of them.

Muslim women are not alone in concealing their hair — ultra-Orthodox Jewish women wear headscarves and some Protestant Christian minority communities also exhort their women to cover their hair.

The following are some of the major Muslim traditions for female headgear:

HIJAB: A headscarf not a veil that is championed by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood which are legal in some Arab countries.

BURQA: A full veil worn by conservative Muslims in countries like Afghanistan, where it is enforced by the Taliban militia fighting US-led forces.

NIQAB: A veil that covers the mouth and nose but not the eyes that is advocated by some Muslim hardliners in Egypt but does not have the sanction of Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.

CHADOR: A full cloak that covers the body and the hair that is traditionally worn in countries like Iran and Afghanistan but is not obligatory.

AFP / Expatica