Sarkozy’s Cabinet approves Bill to ban full Islamic veil

French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his ambition to impose a total ban on women wearing the full Islamic veil on Wednesday, despite warnings that such a move could be anti-constitutional and socially incendiary.

As Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie presented the bill to the French Cabinet, the president reiterated his determination to crack down on a garment he considers to have no place in a secular society committed to women’s rights.

“We are an old country anchored in a certain idea of how to live together. A full veil which completely hides the face is an attack on those values, which for us are so fundamental,” he told his ministers. “Citizenship has to be lived with an uncovered face. There can therefore be absolutely no solution other than a ban in all public places.”

The rightwing government is determined to push through legislation for a total ban and hopes to make it enforceable by 2011. Declaring that “no one can wear a garment in public which is aimed at hiding their face”, the Bill approved by the Cabinet today envisages fining any woman in a niqab or burqa €150.

As an alternative or possibly supplementary measure, they could also be made to take a course in the values of French citizenship. Husbands or partners who make women wear a full veil face a fine of €15 000 or a year in prison.

The legislation, the product of almost a year’s discussion and research by French parliamentarians and the government, has focused attention on the country’s estimated five million Muslims, in particular the small minority of around 2 000 women who are thought to wear the niqab.

Violent protests
This week has seen tensions flare over the issue: on Tuesday the police had to be called in to break up clashes during a debate organised by the women’s rights group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores or Doormats) and disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters.

In the western town of Trignac, according to a report in the local newspaper Presse Océan, a shopper tried to snatch the veil from the face of a Muslim woman who had allegedly hit her after hearing derogatory remarks being made about her niqab.

Although it has the support of the Elysée and most members of Sarkozy’s rightwing UMP party, the total ban is likely to come under fire from MPs of other political colours when it is debated in Parliament in July.

Many opposition figures, while favouring a ban of some kind, have argued the proposed legislation is inapplicable and advocated a more moderate measure that would still allow the niqab on the street.

Their point of view has received the authoritative backing of the Council of State, France’s highest legal advisory body, which has twice warned that a total ban, even if approved by the Parliament, would be built on shaky legal foundations and thusvulnerable to rejection by the constitutional council.

It was that body which threw out Sarkozy’s carbon tax just two days before it was due to come in effect on New Year’s Day this year. — Guardian News and Media

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