French lawmakers advance public ban on full-face Islamic veils

By Edward Cody
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PARIS -- The French Parliament's lower house passed sweeping but constitutionally vulnerable legislation Tuesday that would bar women from wearing full-face Islamic veils in public.

The measure, which the National Assembly approved 335 to 1, is scheduled for a vote in the Senate in September. Tuesday's action makes France the second Western European nation, after Belgium, to move toward banning what has become the most prominent symbol of the growing Muslim presence across a continent steeped in traditions of secularism and Christianity.

Similar measures have been discussed, but not passed, in Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In addition, a number of European cities have enacted municipal bans, prohibiting the veils in public buildings and imposing other restrictions.

Apparently by coincidence, France's nationwide ban advanced on the eve of Bastille Day, which marks the 1789 French Revolution that gave birth to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and helped enshrine France as a beacon for the respect of human rights.

The legislation would impose a $185 fine or citizenship lessons -- or both -- on women caught outside their homes wearing the full-face coverings known as a burqa in Afghanistan and a niqab in North Africa. It sets a fine of $38,000 and a one-year prison term for anyone convicted of forcing women and girls to wear such veils, reflecting a widely shared conviction in France that Muslim women are forced to cover their faces by their fathers or husbands.

The draft law is expected to pass as easily in the Senate -- where President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative coalition also dominates -- as it did in the National Assembly. But before going into effect, legislators decided, it will be submitted to the Constitutional Council, France's highest tribunal, to determine whether it is compatible with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

The Council of State, a prestigious advisory body, has warned that an outright ban would be vulnerable to a challenge on constitutional grounds. Similarly, legislators in the European Parliament have warned that it could be struck down in the European Court of Human Rights.

Citing that danger, the Socialist Party, France's main opposition group, abstained from voting Tuesday. The party's stand, its leaders said, reflected opposition to the full-face veil but also refusal to endorse the outright ban backed by Sarkozy's government. Instead, they explained, the prohibition should have been limited to public buildings such as schools, courtrooms and hospitals.

But Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, whose office wrote and shepherded the legislation, said an outright ban was the only logical choice because French values imply living with uncovered faces. "This is a success for the republic and the values it embodies," she said after the vote, adding, "It shows France is never so great, never so respected around the world, as when it is united around its values."

The Socialists appeared to be seeking to maintain their opposition role but without confronting the public's strong support of the ban. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 82 percent of those queried support the prohibition. The survey also found that 71 percent of Germans, 62 percent of Britons and 59 percent of Spaniards would back similar bans in their own countries.

France's Interior Ministry has estimated that fewer than 2,000 women wear full-face veils in France, a country of 64 million people, about 5 million of whom are Muslims. Still, the issue has become a rallying point for those who say Muslims should work harder to integrate into French society if they choose to live here.

France's main Muslim organizations, while denouncing the veils as out of place in Europe, have expressed concern that Sarkozy's legislation is likely to encourage discrimination against Muslims.

François de Rugy, a Green Party member of Parliament who cast the lone "no" vote against the ban, accused the government of fanning such tensions in an effort to win support from voters in the anti-immigrant National Front party. Sarkozy's presidential victory in 2007 was due in part to his ability to siphon off such voters.

"You are throwing oil on the fire," de Rugy said. "You are feeding the fire, and for electoral reasons."

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