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Sarkozy party launches debate on Islam, secularism

As the April 11 date approaches for the implementation of a ban on wearing full face veils in public places, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party opens a debate on secularism and Islam amid signs of dissent within the party.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party opens a controversial debate Tuesday on secularism and Islam amid signs of dissent from within his own party over the merits of re-opening discussions on such a hot-button issue.

The debate has been criticised by Sarkzoy’s detractors as a political ploy by the UMP to make inroads into the far-right National Front’s electoral base ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Over the past few days, however, some of the French president’s top officials have voiced concern over the issue. French Prime Minister François Fillon, who has previously expressed fears about stigmatising the Muslim community in France, says he will not participate.

But UMP chief Jean-François Copé, who has vociferously supported the French ban on wearing full Islamic veils, has said he intends to offer new answers to a problem that has traditionally been one of the rallying points of the far right.

The convention, which opens in Paris on Tuesday, will debate “26 propositions” that aim to put an end to the debate, but which will “in no way” contravene the 1905 French law that separates church and state.

For its part, the Radical Party, a centrist party that is closely associated with the UMP, has also distanced itself from the convention. According to Radical Party chief Jean-Louis Borloo, the 1905 law is well adapted to enable the practice of all religions and religious customs within the secular French republic without breaking any of its laws.

So far, 14 French ministers have said that they will be attending the convention.

The anti-racism group SOS Racism, for its part, has said that it will be making a formal complaint against Interior Minister Claude Gueant, who added fuel to the debate recently when he said that the rise in the number of Muslims living in France since the 1905 law came into effect was “creating a problem”.

One of the UMP propositions aims to create greater transparency for overseas financial transactions that channel funds used to build places of worship in France.

April 11 deadline

The controversial ban on wearing a full face veil in public places comes into force on April

A guide to the four main types of Muslim veil

11 in France.

Last week, Gueant signed a circular, sent to all law enforcement agencies, “for instructions on carrying out identity checks and for the issuing of fines”.

According to the document, which was published by right-leaning daily newspaper Le Figaro, police officers do not have the right to forcibly remove a veil.

“Either the person wearing the veil removes it, or else that person is conducted to a police station so that their identity can be verified,” the circular instructs.

In no instance can a woman wearing a niqab be placed under arrest simply for wearing the full veil. But she can be held at a police station for up to four hours, held liable for a 150 euro fine and required to take a citizenship course.


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