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French Panel Recommends Partial Ban On Muslim Face Veil

A woman in the French city of Lyon wears a niqab, one type of full Islamic veil.

A woman in the French city of Lyon wears a niqab, one type of full Islamic veil.

(RFE/RL) -- Following six months of hearings surrounded by public debate, a French parliamentary commission has recommended barring Muslim women from wearing full Islamic veils in public institutions.

Citing equality between men and women and the principle of secularism, the nearly 200-page report calls on parliament to adopt a formal resolution stating that the full veils -- known as burqas or niqabs -- are "contrary to the values of the republic."

"The full veil in France contradicts our republican principles," speaker Bernard Accoyer said in presenting the report to the National Assembly. "It is the symbol of the subservience of women, and the banner -- as you write it -- of extremist fundamentalism. The objective is to have this practice stopped on the territory of the republic."

The report calls for the adoption of a ban on wearing the full veils in "public services," including hospitals, schools, and transport.

Such a ban would require that people show their faces when entering the facility and keep the face uncovered throughout their presence there. Failure to do so would result "in a refusal to deliver the service demanded." That means, for instance, that a woman seeking state funds commonly accorded to mothers would walk away empty-handed.

The 32-member, multiparty panel also wants France to refuse residence cards and citizenship to anyone with visible signs of a "radical religious practice." However, the panel stopped short of proposing broad legislation to outlaw the full veil in private areas, streets, and shopping centers.

France has an estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest such population in Europe.

'Radical Religious Practice'

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.

The burqa is not a religious sign. It's a sign of subservience. It's a sign of subjugation.
The inquiry began after President Nicolas Sarkozy said in June that all-encompassing veils would "not be welcome" in France.

"The burqa is not a religious sign. It's a sign of subservience. It's a sign of subjugation," he said. "I want to say it solemnly: It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic."

Opinion polls suggest a majority of French people support a ban on the full veil. It's widely seen as a gateway to extremism, an insult to gender equality, and an offense to France's secular foundation.

Some Muslim groups in France support the proposed ban, saying the majority of Muslim legal scholars do not believe women are obliged to cover their whole face under Islamic law. Others, however, say a ban would violate religious rights and would only stoke Islamophobia.

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.

Mohamed Bechari, president of the National Federation of France’s Muslims (FNMF), tells RFE/RL that he shares this feeling. Bechari notes with worry that the leader of the ruling right-wing party in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, has already presented draft legislation that would make it illegal -- for reasons of security -- for anyone to cover their faces in public.

He says he suspects the ruling right-wing party could try exploit the veil issue ahead of March elections.

"We see that ahead of France's regional elections, some want to politicize this issue to serve certain political groups which are today not on the same wavelength as the electorate," Bechari says.

It was not immediately clear whether the government or parliament would take up any or all of the report's recommendations.

Any action is not expected to come before regional elections in March.

'Mark Of Separation'

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

The Islamic face veil has become an issue in other European countries, too.

The British Education Ministry in 2007 published directives allowing directors of public establishments and denominational schools to ban the niqab. That followed a debate the previous year in which then Prime Minister Tony Blair called the full face veil a "mark of separation.”

In Belgium, numerous districts ban the full veil in public places under local laws, and police ban the wearing of masks in the street except during carnivals.

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

with agency reports

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