France to debate Islamic veil ban

French National Assembly today considers banning the full-face veil in public, in the country with Europe's biggest Muslim community.

PARIS // Frances National Assembly begins a debate today on whether to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public, in the country with Europe's biggest Muslim community. The proposed law would make it illegal to cover the face anywhere in public and impose fines of ?150 (Dh688) on those caught wearing a full veil, which president Nicolas Sarkozy has described as degrading to women. Legal authorities have warned the so-called burqa ban may be unconstitutional and critics have opposed it as a divisive measure that discriminates against Muslims.

Justice minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who is presenting the bill, said she hoped for a "consensus," insisting the law was not exclusively aimed at Muslim women, of whom only a few hundred are believed to wear the veil in France. "The law is not about the veil, but about deliberately covering the face in any way," she was quoted as saying by the daily Liberation. "It is not a question of religion," she said. "The republic lives with its face uncovered."

After months of public wrangling, the National Assembly lower house was to start debating the bill tonight. It is to hold a vote on July 13 and if passed it will then got to the Senate in September. Legal experts warn the broad scope of the law, banning the veil in all public places instead of just in state institutions, could be struck down by the constitutional court. Similar laws are pending in Belgium and Spain, but the ban is particularly sensitive in France.

Muslim leaders fear it will stoke tensions by stigmatising France's estimated five to six million Muslims, many of whom live in volatile city suburbs. The French prime minister Francois Fillon, defending the move, made the rare gesture of inaugurating a mosque in a Paris suburb last week, drinking mint tea and eating dates with Muslim leaders. Mr Fillon said Muslims who wear face coverings such as the niqab and burqa are "hijacking Islam" by providing a "dark and sectarian image" of the religion that is "the opposite of the French Islam that you have contributed to build."

Fewer than 2,000 women wear the full-face veil in France, according to the interior ministry. To avoid tensions, the law would give police leeway to waive penalties and instead order offenders to enrol in a "citizenship course" to better understand French secularism. Men who force their wives or daughters to wear the full veil face a fine of up to ?30,000 and a one-year jail term, according to the draft legislation.

No penalties will be applied in the first six months after its adoption. French politicians have said the law will also apply to tourists from the Middle East and the Gulf, who are often seen fully veiled in luxury shops on the Paris boulevards. *AFP