France takes first step towards banning Muslim face veils

January 26, 2010
veil presser

Camera crews at presentation of the veil commission report in Paris, 26 Jan 2010/Tom Heneghan

The French parliamentary commission studying the issue of full Muslim veils has produced its expected result — a recommendation that the National Assembly denounces these veils as contrary to French values and votes a law to ban them in public. They could not propose a full draft law because there are some doubts about whether a total ban would be constitutional. But the lawmakers made it absolutely clear they wanted to rid France of the veils — known here as “burqas” even though most are Saudi-style niqabs — and the fundamentalist Islam they said the garments represent.

Our news report here gives the main details of the story. At the news conference presenting the report, commission chairman André Gérin was his usual outspoken self, lashing out at “gurus of fundamentalism” who he said were forcing women to wear full veils and warning the veil phenomenon was only “the tip of the iceberg.” The veil hid what he called “scandalous practices of sectarianism and fundamentalism.” His deputy chairman Eric Raoult was more moderate and even defended the commission against charges it was “monomaniac” in its focus on the veil.

While the politicians said France was a welcoming country that did not want to stigmatise any group, the commission’s proposals betrayed a narrow view of veiled women and how to deal with them. The proposals defined veil wearing in the context of pressure on and violence against women. They stressed its foreign nature by suggesting tighter procedures when issuing visas, affording resident status, offering integration courses and granting citizenship through naturalisation.

veil shopping

Veiled woman shopping in Leers, northern France, 6 Jan 2010/Farid Alouache

But Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux himself has said that, of the 1,900 women wearing full veils in France, 2/3 are already French citizens and 1/4 of them were actually French converts to Islam. Many of the measures proposed would not really apply to them. In addition, many veiled women say in interviews that they were not forced by male relatives to cover up and decided for religious reasons to do so. One cannot assume that all veiled women wear the garment voluntarily, but assuming they are all forced to do so seems equally one-sided. But that’s the approach underlying the commission’s suggestions.

Burqas and niqabs present a problem for an open society because they prevent a woman from being identified by her face, which one MP called “nature’s ID card.” Civil servants being asked to enrol a voter, pay child benefits, answer questions about tax returns, release schoolchildren to their parents or treat someone in a hospital have to be able to identify the person involved. The question is whether, by passing a stiff ban, the parliament ends up wielding a sledgehammer when a less blunt method could have been just as efficient, if not more so.

Here’s a Reuters video on the presentation of the commission report:

Here is a summary of the commission’s proposals:

1. Pass a resolution condemning the wearing of the full veil as contrary to the values of the Republic and condemning discrimination and violence against women and affirming France’s solidarity with women who are victims of it throughout the world.

2. Dialogue with veiled women and their entourage to understand their motivations.

3. Reinforce civics instruction in programs to integrate foreigners.

4. Train civil servants in secularism and methods of dealing with aggressive behaviour.

5. Evaluate measures to prevent sexist violence and teach gender equality at schools.

6. Give a role to the Observatory of Secularism (laïcité) created in 2007.

*7. Create a National School for the Study of Islam.

*8. Launch a parliamentary study of Islamophobia and the fight against discrimination of Muslims.

9. Study ways to assure a proper representation of spiritual diversity.

10. Instruct public servants to report to county authorities (conseil general) any cases of minors wearing full veils.

11. Plan to create an offence of applying psychological violence within a married couple.

12. Expand the law to include provocation to violate the dignity of a person.

13. Ask the Miviludes panel on fighting sects to list possible sectarian excesses that could have occured in groups where the full veil is worn and for which the veil is an indicator.

14. With requests for asylum, take the veil into consideration as a sign of persecution.

15. Adopt a measure to ban hiding the face in public services.

16. Modify visa and residence codes to mention gender equality and secularism as values to be respected by people seeking long-term visas and to allow refusal of resident status to people who practice a radical form of religion incompatible with the values of the Republic.

17. Introduce into the civil code on naturalisation a clause saying that practicing a radical form of religion incompatible with the values of the Republic — especially concerning gender equality — is a sign of insufficient assimilation.

*18. Ask the Council of State for advice on a draft law banning the hiding of faces in the public sphere.

N.B. The proposals marked with an asterisk — #7,8,18 — were included in the report but did not win full support from all members of the commission.

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