France: Cross-party committee to recommend partial ban on full veil

The Guardian

France will today take the first step towards barring Muslim women from wearing the full veil when using public services, but will stop short of calling for an outright ban after critics argued that such a move would be socially divisive and hard to enforce. A cross-party committee of MPs was set up last year to explore the controversial issue in France of burkas and niqabs. The committee will recommend to ­parliament that Muslim women should be allowed to continue covering their faces in the street. Its final report will, however, recommend that anyone covering their face be barred from entering public sector property, including hospitals and schools, or using public transport.

"The full veil is the visible part of this black tide of fundamentalism," said Communist MP André Gerin, the committee's president, in an interview last week. Eric Raoult, a rightwing MP heavily involved in the report, said yesterday that the imposition of a full ban – if it were to occur – would have to wait. "We have tried to do something that is coherent and enforceable," he said, adding that a ban that was unenforceable would "make everyone look ridiculous".

Under the proposals, a woman who fails to remove her veil inside when using any realm of the statethose public servicin such cases would not face a fine for breaking the law, but would be refused access to the service. She would not, for instance, be allowed to collect her child benefit payments or take the bus.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has repeatedly said that the full veil "is not welcome" on French soil, is believed to favour this partial legislation, rather than more radical suggestions from recalcitrant members of his rightwing UMP party.

The president has been warned that an outright ban on the full veil could be found to be unconstitutional and almost impossible to put into practice. Sarkozy, who has stressed the need to find a solution in which "no one feels stigmatised", is also keen to play down speculation that his policies are doing more to aggravate social divisions than to bridge them.

Steps to ban the burka, which have been opposed by the Muslim Council of France and other religious groups, have coincided with the French government's "big debate" on national identity. Critics of the government, from the left and right, have accused Sarkozy of encouraging dangerous rhetoric which has seen the country's 5 million Muslims become the object of increasing critiques.

Tomorrow's cross-party report – whose contents were leaked to the French press last week – looks likely to recommend the ­passing of a non-binding parliamentary resolution setting out the country's "symbolic" opposition to the full veil.

After that, steps should be taken to vote into law a series of "separate, but multiple bans" which would make clear the garment's practical incompatibility with French values of sexual equality and freedom, the report will say.

"We have to make life impossible for them in order to curb the phenomenon," one MP told the French daily Le Figaro. However, opponents have said that banning the full veil either outright or partially would serve merely to reinforce the isolation of women already partially alienated from mainstream society.

The 32-member panel, which has been meeting and questioning experts on the issue for the past six months, was set up by Sarkozy last summer after he declared that the full veil was "a sign of subservience [and] debasement".

Gerin has not made any secret of his desire to see a ban on what he has denounced as a "walking prison". His feelings have tapped into growing concern in France over an item of clothing worn by a small minority of Muslim women.

According to police figures, no more than 2,000 women – most of them young and a quarter of them converts – wear a face-covering veil. But in a country which places a high value on laïcité – secularism – and which in 2004 banned headscarves in schools, it is unsurprising that such an overt display of religion has raised eyebrows. The major political parties, leading feminists and even one prominent imam have made clear their dislike for the full veil, which they view as an affront to women's rights and a sign of an emerging strand of fundamentalist Islam.

Despite wide-ranging opposition to the garment and polls showing that most French citizens favour a ban, opinions have differed on how to go about discouraging women from covering their faces.

The Socialist party, while condemning the full veil, refused to support a ban.

The UMP's Jean-François Copé, a politician with half an eye on the 2012 presidential elections, grabbed the headlines with a proposal to outlaw the full veil anywhere on French streets and to fine wearers €750 each – a suggestion rejected by the committee.