A bill that would ban wearing full Islamic veils in public is being debated by the French parliament Wednesday and is expected to face little opposition from the Socialist Party, despite concerns that the draft could be seen as an affront to France’s sizable Muslim community and might eventually be deemed unconstitutional.
The text of the bill, drafted by Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, would make it illegal for anyone to wear an “item of clothing that hides the face” in the street or in any public space.
As the National Assembly opened the three-day debate on Tuesday, Alliot-Marie told parliamentary deputies that wearing face coverings "amounted to being cut off from society and rejecting the very spirit of the French republic".
"At a time where our societies are becoming more global and complex, the French people are pondering the future of their nation,” she said. “Our responsibility is to show vigilance and reaffirm our commonly-shared values."
Security was tight at the parliament building in downtown Paris Wednesday, with security officials employing sniffer dogs at the entrance to the building. While similar measures are pending in neighbouring Belgium and Spain, France’s move to ban the burqa has been particularly controversial as it is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community (although only about 1,900 French residents -- according to the government’s own estimate -- wear the full head-to-foot garment).
The bill is the pet project of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has said the full-face veil, which is sometimes referred to as the burqa or niqab, is “not welcome” in France. “It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement,” Sarkozy declared in his state of the nation address last year.
An infraction of the ban, which would also apply to tourists, could carry a €150 fine. In addition, any person found to be forcing a woman to don the face-covering veil could be sentenced to one year in prison and fined up to €30,000.
The draft bill calls for a six-month “educational” period before sanctions would be enforced, beginning in the spring of 2011. The law would also grant police the discretion to waive the monetary penalties and instead order offenders to take a civics course on French secularism.
While the opposition Socialist Party originally declared itself against the law months ago, it has since changed its position and will argue that the ban should be limited to state institutions and should not be enforced on the street. They have said they will abstain from the parliamentary vote, slated for July 13.
The Socialists also note that France's State Council, a top judicial authority, has warned the government that a total ban on the veil in all public places might be deemed unconstitutional. The State Council has the power to veto the legislation.
Jean-Francois Cope, who heads the ruling UMP party in parliament, said on Wednesday that the Constitutional Council should review whether such a law would be constitutional before the bill goes any further, so that its legitimacy "cannot be contested".
The veil issue has become a focus in the ongoing, thorny debate surrounding Islam and France’s secular political system, which rigorously separates church and state. Some argue that a ban could further strain relations with Muslim communities both at home and abroad.
At the opening of a Mosque near Paris in June, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon sought to make a distinction between Islam as it is practiced in France from how it is observed by Muslims elsewhere. “You should stand in the front line against this hijacking of the religious message,” Fillon urged the audience.
But the French Muslim Council, a government advisory body, has pronounced itself against the draft bill. “We think that a general ban is absolutely not the solution,” Council President Mohammed Moussaoui has said.
"Rather than enacting a law barring women from expressing their malaise, we should think about what prompted them to want to cover themselves," Moussaoui told lawmakers in May.
The parliamentary debate in France follows a similar move by Belgian lawmakers who voted overwhelmingly in favour of a similar ban in April, paving the way for the first clampdown of its kind in Europe.
In June, Spain’s senate narrowly approved a motion to ban the full Islamic veil in public places.
Amnesty International has urged European lawmakers to oppose bills outlawing the full veil, saying these texts betray the rights of Muslim women who choose to wear them. The group says a ban could rob these women of the freedom to move about freely in society.
“Amnesty International does not believe that such important values as liberty, equality and fraternity can be advanced by such a discriminatory restriction,” the organisation said in a statement to French senators.
If the lawmakers approve the draft bill it will be sent to the Senate, the upper house of parliament, in September.