France has moved another step closer to outlawing the full-face Islamic veil, with the cabinet's adoption today of a bill banning the attire from public places.
The move comes a month after lawmakers in Belgium became the first in Europe to vote in favor of a similar ban.
The bill against garments that cover the face and body -- known as burqas or niqabs -- says that "no one can wear a garment intended to hide the face in the public space," including public services and streets.
Speaking after the cabinet meeting, government spokesman Luc Chatel said such a ban was necessary to uphold women's dignity and reaffirm France's republican principles.
"Wearing outfits aimed at hiding the face, in particular the full-face veil, question the values that are at the core of our republican pact," Chatel said. "And this practise, even when it is voluntarily, goes against the fundamental requirements to cohabit, goes against the people's dignity and woman's dignity."
The bill calls for a fine of 150 euros ($185) for anyone breaking the law and -- possibly -- a requirement to attend citizenship classes.
Anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil could face a year in prison and a 15,000-euro ($18,555) fine.
President Nicolas Sarkozy began the process to ban burqa-style veils nearly a year ago when he said such garments were "not welcome" in France.
The legislation proposed by his conservative government is to go to the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, for debate in July and to the Senate in September. The text could be amended in the process.
If approved, the bill would not go into effect for six months, to allow time to explain the law to the public and mediate with recalcitrant women.
The legislation is controversial and, if it becomes law, it is likely to face some legal hurdles.
A woman of Algerian origin, identified as Najette, says she has been wearing a niqab -- a veil that leaves only her eyes exposed -- for more than a decade.
In comments to Reuters, she accused the government of trampling on her freedoms.
"When I hear, 'France, liberty, equality, fraternity,' it's a big lie," she said. "I feel like I'm in a dictatorship."
France's highest administrative authority has twice 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. By ignoring these warnings, the government takes the risk of possible sanction from another body that rules on the constitutionality of legislation, the Constitutional Council.
But some members of the ruling party say that if that happened, then a referendum should be held.
Last week, the National Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning the full-face Islamic veil as an affront to the nation's values. That followed a January recommendation -- by a French parliamentary commission -- to bar Muslim women from wearing the full veil in public institutions, including hospitals, schools, and transport.
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 discussion over the full veil, coupled with a debate on French national identity, has left some Muslims feeling their religion is becoming a government target.
One of France's main religious authorities, the head of the Paris Mosque, is cautious about the need for a ban.
"I think that from the outset it's quite a delicate subject," Dalil Boubakeur told Reuters, "and there is no major reason which forces them to bring in restrictions or this sort of ban, this sort of prohibition, in a field where this prohibition is in serious danger of being challenged."
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 worn with a long, dark robe. A burqa covers the eyes, as well.
A similar ban on wearing the Islamic full-face veil in public is in the works in neighboring Belgium, where deputies overwhelmingly voted on April 29 for such legislation. The ban, which must be approved by Belgium’s senate before taking effect, prohibits the public wearing of face-coverings that render a person “no longer identifiable." Doing so would be punishable by fines of 15 to 25 euros ($20-$33) and imprisonment for up to seven days.
Legislation banning the full veil has been studied in several other countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark.
Earlier this month, European parliamentarian Silvana Koch-Mehrin called for a Europe-wide ban on the full-face Islamic veil because covering women, as she said, "openly supports values that we do not share in Europe."
written by Antoine Blua, with agency reports