France: Parliament lays groundwork for veil ban


French lawmakers unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday asserting that face-covering Muslim veils are contrary to the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity on which France is founded. The non-binding resolution, passed 434 to 0, lays the groundwork for a planned law forbidding face-covering veils in public, including in the streets. One lawmaker compared women who fully cover themselves to "phantoms" and "walking coffins." The bill calling for a global ban on such garments goes before parliament in July. A draft text is to be reviewed by the Cabinet on May 19. A similar veil ban is in the works in neighboring Belgium.

Tuesday's resolution, sponsored by President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party, had been widely expected to win approval in the National Assembly with rival Socialists backing it despite concerns about the wording of an eventual law. Lawmakers in the 577-seat house who opposed the resolution abstained.

"The freedom of women is what brings us here ... Have we the choice (to say no) when the symptoms of the regression of women are in the streets?" asked Nicole Ameline, a lawmaker from Sarkozy's UMP party and former minister for women's rights.

Sharp criticism has accompanied France's nearly year-long debate on banning burqa-style veils, with those opposed saying, among other things, that the entire process has stigmatized the nation's estimated 5 million Muslims — the largest Muslim population in western Europe. They also claim it is a political ploy because only an estimated 1,900 women wear veils that hide the face.

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who is writing the draft law, said it is the veil that "stigmatizes Islam" and "harms the liberty of women on whom it is imposed."

Andre Gerin, a Communist deputy who headed an information panel on the issue, said veils transform women into "phantoms," "walking coffins" and represent the "barbarism" of Muslim extremists.

A law banning the veils "will be a law of liberation," he said.

France banned Muslim headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols in classrooms in 2004 after a bitter debate.

The road from a resolution to a bill then a law fully banning face-covering veils is likely to be rocky, too. Sarkozy's government has been warned by the Council of State, the nation's highest administrative body, that such legislation may not pass constitutional muster, in France or in European forums.

Earlier Tuesday, a Council of Europe commission opposed a blanket ban on face coverings such as the burqa and niqab, the cloth that exposes only the eyes.

A statement by the Strasbourg-based commission said such a ban would rob women of their freedom of expression and could violate their religious freedoms.

The panel also urged Switzerland to end its ban on the construction of Islam minarets as soon as possible. The Council of Europe, a 47-nation human rights institution, is to discuss the burqa issue next month. Its rulings are binding on all Council of Europe member states.