France split over calls to ban burqa

The French government was split on Friday over whether a law should be enacted to restrict the wearing of the full Islamic veil by Muslim women in Europe’s most staunchly secular country.

A group of lawmakers is calling for a special inquiry into whether women who wear the burqa or the niqab undermine French secularism and women’s rights.

The government’s spokesperson welcomed the proposal for a parliamentary commission that could lead to legislation, but Immigration Minister Eric Besson warned a law would stir tensions in France, home to about five million Muslims.

Communist member of Parliament Andre Gerin is spearheading the drive for a parliamentary panel that would look at ways to restrict the burqa, which he describes as a ”prison” and ”degrading” for women.

The deputy is also mayor of the southern city of Venissieux, home to a large north African immigrant population, where he says the sight of covered women is not a rare occurrence.

”If it were determined that wearing the burqa is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles, well naturally Parliament would have to drawn the necessary conclusions,” said government spokesperson Luc Chatel.

Asked whether that would mean introducing legislation, he said: ”Why not?”

Home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, France passed a controversial law in 2004 forbidding girls from wearing veils in state schools as part of the government’s drive to defend secularism.

Besson, a former Socialist, came out against new legislation on Islamic dress, saying France had already gone far enough in imposing restrictions on wearing veils in government offices and schools.

”We need to counter the wearing of the burqa with education and dialogue. A law would be inefficient and create tensions that we don’t need at this time,” Besson told Europe 1 radio.

The proposal has won support from many politicians from both the left and right including Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, who was born to Algerian immigrants and is an outspoken advocate for Muslim women’s rights.

France’s Muslim council, however, accused lawmakers of wasting time by focusing on a fringe phenomenon and said it would stigmatise Muslims.

”To raise the subject like this, via a parliamentary committee, is a way of stigmatising Islam and the Muslims of France,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion.

”We are shocked by the idea Parliament should be put to work on such a marginal issue,” he said, saying lawmakers would do better to focus on the hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost in the economic crisis.

A few thousand women wear the burqa in France, many of whom are French converts who choose to cover themselves to assert their faith, according to Le Figaro newspaper.

If the lower house agrees to set up the commission, it would draft a report to be released no later than November 30, said Gerin. — Sapa-AFP

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