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France

Anti-veil law risks being shot down by constitutional council

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2010-07-08

France’s UMP party leader at the National Assembly has declared that the party's proposed anti-veil law would be sent to the Constitutional Council to confirm its constitutional validity, a rather risky move for the party.

A proposed law against the wearing of the full Islamic veil in French public spaces is to be sent to France’s Constitutional Council after being voted on by the Parliament.That was the surprise announcement by Jean-Francois Cope, head of the ruling UMP party in parliament, during a debate on the text by the French National Assembly on Wednesday.

The ‘Sages’ (wise ones), as the Constitutional Council of France is popularly known, are charged with examining the compatibility of laws with the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. But there’s a strong chance that they will reject a general ban on the Muslim veil, making it a risky bet for the majority party.

Back in March, the State Council, an advisory government body headed by the prime minister, expressed serious reserves on a “general and absolute ban on the wearing of the full veil as such or any method of concealing the face in all public spaces," saying that the act "would be exposed to serious risks with regards to the Constitution...".

Gilles Devers, a lawyer in Lyon and co-author of the book Law and Islam, agrees: "This law touches on fundamental freedoms, it will not withstand the scrutiny of the Constitutional Council," he said.

'A woman in a burqa could bring the republic to its knees'

The Constitutional Council is likely to follow the line taken by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which, back in February, said that "religious attire in public space cannot be banned except if [people] were accompanied by excessive proselytism, felt as real pressure on passers-by".

"The Constitutional Council cannot really take a decision contrary to the ECHR," said Devers.

So the government's landmark law, which has already generated a great deal of controversy, could be declared unconstitutional.

But according to Devers, not trying to obtain a council endorsement before promulgating the law would be disastrous for the majority UMP party since a radical change of rules in March that now means any individual citizen can challenge a law’s constitutional validity.

If the anti-veil law were to be adopted without the council's approval, "the first woman in a burqa cited for it could, through her lawyer and following a few legal procedures, go before the Constitutional Council and have the law annulled within six or eight months," said Devers.

“It would be an irony of history", he added, if "the first person to bring down a republic forgetful of fundamental rights would be a woman in a burqa…”. 

Date created : 2010-07-08

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