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France To Ban Full Islamic Veil From Public Spaces

A woman wearing a niqab, the islamic full veil, in the French city of Lyon. (file photo)

A woman wearing a niqab, the islamic full veil, in the French city of Lyon. (file photo)

France's government is drafting a bill to ban the full-face Islamic veil from all public spaces and codify President Nicolas Sarkozy's assertion that the full veil is not "welcome" in that country.

Sarkozy reportedly ordered that the legislation be presented to ministers in May.

The move comes despite warnings from experts who say such a ban could face legal challenges.

Speaking after a cabinet meeting today, government spokesman Luc Chatel said the bill against the garments that cover the face and body -- known as burqas or niqabs -- will be given to the cabinet after consultation with parties, political groups, and religious authorities.

Chatel quoted Sarkozy as saying that wearing a full veil is a sign of a "community closing in on itself and a rejection of our values."

"The ban on the full veil must be general, in all public spaces, because a woman's dignity [must be respected everywhere]," the spokesman said. "Second principle: Everything must be done so that nobody feels stigmatized because of his faith or religious practices."

Jean-Francois Cope, who heads Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) group in parliament, welcomed the announcement, calling for the adoption of the bill by the end of July.

But if the bill becomes law, it is likely to face some legal hurdles.

'Conspicuous' Symbols

In March, France's highest administrative authority questioned whether such a ban in all public spaces would be constitutional. The State Council warned that it could not see any clear way to enact such legislation without encountering a legal challenge.

In January, a French parliamentary commission recommended barring Muslim women from wearing the full veil in public institutions, including hospitals, schools, and transport, saying the full veil contradicts France's secular republican principles.

In 2004, France passed a law banning head scarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools.

Many Muslim leaders have complained that the debate over the full veil, coupled with an ongoing debate on French national identity, has left some Muslims feeling their religion is becoming a government target.

France has an estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest such population in Europe. According to the Interior Ministry, some 1,900 Muslim women wear the full veil, most often a niqab hiding all the face but the eyes, and worn with a long, dark robe. A burqa covers the eyes, as well.

First Of Its Kind

So far, no European country has adopted sweeping national legislation banning the full veil, although it has been studied in several countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark.

In Belgium, a parliamentary panel approved in March a draft law that would ban Muslim women from wearing the full face veil in public places, including in the street, in public parks, at sports grounds, and in public and state buildings.

The full parliament was originally expected to vote on the bill sometime in April. If approved, the measure would be the first comprehensive law in Europe against the wearing of the face veil.

compiled from agency reports

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