French legislators in the lower house overwhelmingly agreed on a ban on burqa-style Islamic veils yesterday as part of a rigorous effort to define and defend French values.
But many of the country’s Muslim population are not happy with the development.
Those who supported the ban say face-covering veils do not conform with the European country’s ideal of women equality or its secular tradition, the Associated Press (AP) reported yesterday.
The bill is controversial abroad but popular in France, where its relatively few outspoken critics say conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has resorted to xenophobia to attract far-right voters.
The ban on burqas and niqabs will go in September to the Senate, where it also is likely to pass. Its biggest hurdle will likely come after that, when France 's constitutional watchdog scrutinizes it. Some legal scholars say there is a chance it could be deemed unconstitutional..
Spain and Belgium have similar bans in the works. France has Europe 's largest Muslim population; about 5 million of the country's 64 million people are believed to be Muslims. While ordinary headscarves are common in the country, only about 1,900 women are believed to wear full face-covering veils.
The main body representing French Muslims says such garb is not suitable in France but it worries that the ban will stigmatize all Muslims.
In yesterday’s vote at the National Assembly, there were 335 votes for the bill and just one against it. Most members of the main opposition group, the Socialist Party, walked out and refused to vote, though they in fact support a ban.
They said they have differences over where it should be enforced, underscoring the controversy among French politicians on the issue.
The bill bans face-covering veils everywhere that can be considered public space, even in the street, but the Socialists only want it in certain places, such as government buildings, hospitals and public transport.
France's government has sought to insist that assimilation is the only path for immigrants and minorities and last year it launched a grand nationwide debate on what it means to be French. The country has had difficulty integrating generations of immigrants and their children, as witnessed by weeks of rioting by youths, many of them minorities, in troubled neighborhoods in 2005.
At the National Assembly, few dissenters spoke out about civil liberties or fears of fanning anti-Islam sentiment. Before the vote, the Greens lawmaker Francois de Rugy said the conservatives "are throwing oil on the fire — you are reviving tensions just to win votes."
Legislator Berengere Poletti, of Sarkozy's party, said face-covering veils "are a prison for women, they are the sign of their submission to their husbands, brothers or fathers."
The niqab and burqa are also seen in the country as a gateway to extremism and an attack on secularism, a central value of France for more than a century. Discussions in the country have dragged on for more than a year since Sarkozy declared in June 2009 that the burqa is "not welcome" in France .
There has been some concern the bill could prod terror groups to eye France or its citizens as potential targets. Following Sarkozy's comments, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement on web sites vowing to "seek vengeance against France."
The legislation would forbid face-covering Muslim veils in all public places in France and calls for euros 150 ($185) fines or citizenship classes, or both.
The bill is also aimed at husbands and fathers — anyone convicted of forcing someone else to wear the garb risks a year of prison and a euros 30,000 ($38,000) fine, with both penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.
Officials have taken pains to craft a language that does not single out Muslims. While the proposed legislation is colloquially referred to as the "anti-burqa law," it is officially called "the bill to forbid concealing one's face in public."
It refers neither to Islam nor to veils. Officials insist the law against face-covering is not discriminatory because it would apply to everyone, not just Muslims. Yet they cite a host of exceptions, including motorcycle helmets, or masks for health reasons, fencing, skiing or carnivals.
In March, France 's highest administrative body, the Council of State, warned that the law could be found unconstitutional. It said that neither French secularism nor concerns about equality for women, human dignity or public security could have legal justifications.