FaithWorld

French lawmakers vote to ban full face veils in public

national assemblyMuslim women could be fined for wearing full face veils in public in France under a bill approved overwhelmingly on Tuesday by the lower house of parliament. Offenders would be fined 150 euros ($189) or required to take part in a citizenship class. The bill, which critics say stigmatizes immigrants, bans people “from wearing, in a public place, garments designed to cover the face.” (Photo: Veil ban debate in the National Assembly in Paris, July 13, 2010/Benoit Tessier)

Forcing someone to cover their face would be punishable by a one-year prison sentence and a 30,000 euro fine. The law does not apply if the face is covered for carnivals or artistic events.

In the vote, 335 members of parliament approved the ban, with just one against. Opposition socialist and Green lawmakers abstained. The legislation still has to be vetted by the Constitutional Council, France’s highest constitutional authority, and approved by the Senate.

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the approval was a success for French republican values of liberty, equality, fraternity and secularism.  However, the Council of State, France’s top legal advisory body, has already queried whether a ban is compatible with the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Council of Europe has also said it is opposed to bans on veils, and that they deny women a basic right. vote(Photo: National Assembly vote tally, July 13, 2010/Benoit Tessier)

Read the full story here and read a factbox on policies on Muslim scarves and veils in Europe. Also check out a recent poll showing strong support for veil bans in several European countries.  As Sara Silvestri, a  lecturer in religion and international politics at City University in London, put it in an initial reaction:

Strong support to outlaw face veils as France prepares to vote ban

France’s plan to ban full face veils, which comes up for a vote in the National Assembly on Tuesday, enjoys 82% popular support in the country, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Its neighbours also approve — 71% of those polled in Germany, 62% in Britain and 59% in Spain agreed that there should be laws prohibiting the Muslim veils known as niqabs and burqas in public. burqa 1(Photo: French woman fined for wearing a niqab while driving outside court in Nantes June 28, 2010/Stephane Mahe)

The poll, conducted from April 7 to May 8, did not range further afield, but reports from other countries show support there as well. The lower house of the Belgian parliament has voted for a ban, which should be approved by the Senate after the summer. In the Netherlands, several bills to ban full veils in certain sectors such as schools and public service are in preparation. Switzerland’s justice minister has suggested the cantons there should pass partial bans but make exceptions for visiting Muslim tourists (the wives of rich sheikhs visiting their bankers in Zurich or Geneva?)

The big exception in the Pew poll is the United States, where 65% of those polled disapprove of a ban and only 28% support the idea. The poll did not investigate the reasons for this difference, so we can only assume it has to do with the more widespread acceptance of religion in public life in the U.S. and a more open approach to immigration.

French PM urges Muslims to reject “hijacked Islam”

fillonPrime Minister François Fillon has urged France’s Muslims to reject full face veils as a sectarian caricature of Islam, a week before parliament debates a law banning burqas and niqabs in public.

Inaugurating a mosque in a northwestern Paris suburb, he said French Muslims should combat a tiny radical minority using face veils as a way to combat the integration of a tolerant Islam that respects the separation of church and state. (Photo: Prime Minister François Fillon at podium inaugurating the Al Ihsan mosque, 28 June 2010/Benoit Tessier)

“The Islam of France, the Islam you practice daily, has nothing to do with this caricature that dims the lights of your faith,” Fillon, the most senior French politician to inaugurate a mosque in decades, said to applause from the crowd. “You should stand in the front line against this hijacking of the religious message … it’s up to you to make intelligence triumph over obscurantism and tolerance over intolerance.”

Spanish town council bans Muslim veils in public buildings

Lleida

Lleida, 18 August 2006/Hector Blanco

A Spanish town council has voted to ban the wearing of the face-covering Muslim veil in public buildings, the first authority in the predominantly Catholic country to do so.

The Catalan council of Lleida approved a law prohibiting the use of full veils such as the Afghan burqa or the niqab, which leave only the eyes visible, according to a release on its website (here in Catalan).

The French cabinet approved a bill this month to outlaw the wearing of niqabs and burqas in public, and Belgium’s lower house voted in favour of prohibiting the full veil last month, provoking strong reactions and stoking debate across Europe.

After minarets, will Switzerland ban burqas too?

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Zurich and the Limmat River, April 20, 2008/Arnd Wiegmann

Full Muslim face veils could become the next divisive religious issue to take centre stage in Switzerland, where voters last November approved a measure banning the construction of new minarets. The Swiss federal government said in February it saw no need for a “burqa ban.” Politicians at the national level say there’s no “burqa problem” in Switzerland. But few thought there was a “minaret problem” either, until the question was put to a national referendum and the minaret ban campaigners won.

Like the minarets, of which there are only four in Switzerland, there are very few veiled women in Switzerland. The most likely place to see them is Geneva, where many rich Middle Easterners do their banking. Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey recently told the newspaper Blick that she’d once seen fully veiled women there and was “furious, because the burqa is a symbol of the enslavement of women.” But she insisted to her interviewers: “I’m against burqas. And I’m against a burqa ban … we don’t have a burqa problem in Switzerland. Very few women wear a burqa here. Have you even seen one?”

Similarly, Economy Minister Doris Leuthard, who is also serving this year as the country’s president, has said  “we’ve got much tougher, more important problems.” Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has said “we don’t really have a burqa problem in Switzerland now.” She did add, though, that she was watching to see whether a “parallel society” was developing. “We are not ready to let our legal system and our values be compromised,” she said.

Sarkozy says Muslims should not feel singled out by full veil ban

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A veiled woman in Nantes, western France, on April 26, 2010/Stephane Mahe

France attempted the arguably impossible on Wednesday by presenting a bill to ban Muslim face veils and asking Muslims not to feel it was singling them out in the process.

President Nicolas Sarkozy made a brave effort of it at the cabinet meeting that approved the government’s draft “burqa ban” that we reported on here.  Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who Sarkozy’s UMP party always seems to call on when things get tough, did her best in an interview (here in French) that got the part about Mecca wrong. There will be more of this in the months ahead as the bill moves through the National Assembly and Senate.

It’s hard not to single out Muslims when they’re the only ones who wear full face veils. The bill avoids mentioning them as such, saying only that the ban applies to “concealment of the face in public. But nobody’s fooled, a fact Sarkozy acknowledged in his comments to the cabinet: “This is a decision one doesn’t take lightly. It’s a serious decision because nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected. Laïcité means respect for all beliefs, for all religions.

France’s burqa debate stokes passions in North Africa

Anne, an assumed name, a 31-year old French woman who has been fined for wearing a niqab while driving, speaks to the media during a news conference with her husband Lies Hebbadj in Nantes, western France, April 26, 2010.  REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/Files

Veiled French woman Anne (an assumed name) fined for wearing a niqab while driving in Nantes meets journalists on 26 April 2010/Stephane Mahe

A French proposal to ban full face veils has stoked debate in Europe and also provoked strong reactions across the Mediterranean in North Africa, where many of France’s Muslims trace their origins.

Former French colonies Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are still tied to France by history, language and migration, so their views on the “burqa” issue could have a direct influence on how Muslims inside France react to a ban.

Tearing away the veil — French lawmaker explains burqa ban

cope Jean-François Copé on September 5, 2009/Olivier Pon

One of the most frequent questions I get from readers outside of France is how politicians here can justify banning Muslim face veils in public places. Isn’t this a blatant violation of the freedom of religion?  Why isn’t this seen as such an obvious case of discrimination that legislators reject the idea outright?

Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly, is one of the most outspoken champions of a complete ban on niqabs and burqas in all public spaces in France. An ambitious politician who political junkies here suspect has presidential pretensions, Copé continued campaigning for a ban even after legal experts said it could be unconstitutional. He eventually won out, however, when President Nicolas Sarkozy backed a full ban. The French cabinet plans to review the draft bill on May 19 and then send it to the National Assembly for debate.

Copé has published an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times — Tearing Away the Veil — that clearly explains his position on a veil ban. The column, written for non-French readers, is stripped of some of the political rhetoric that obfuscates the issue here. I recommend it to readers still trying to figure out what France is doing and why.

French foreign minister gets ready for criticism over planned burqa ban


(French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Europe 1 radio, 2 May 2010/Dailymotion)

France hasn’t even presented its draft bill to outlaw Muslim face veils yet — in contrast to Belgium, which has started voting on its ban — but Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is already preparing for the wave of criticism from abroad it will provoke. He told Europe 1 radio on Sunday that he’d already warned the government at a cabinet meeting about what to expect.

“The United States are very attached to religious liberty and there will be lots of NGOs and American foundations that will want to point out our mistake,” he said (in the video above in French). “I think they’ll also be convinced that we are for religious liberty but there is no religious recommendation to veil one’s face.

Belgian vote on Muslim veils could echo in Europe

belgium niqab

Salma, a 22-year-old French woman living in Belgium who chose to wear the niqab after converting to Islam, speaks to Reuters television outside the Belgian Parliament in Brussels April 26, 2010/Yves Herman

Belgium’s vote to ban full face veils in public is the furthest any European country has gone to confront a tiny minority whose choice in clothing has come to symbolise the issue of integrating some Muslim minorities.

The issue is being debated elsewhere in Europe, especially in France, and the example of two countries moving towards a ban has raised the stakes in a dispute pitting politicians and public opinion against Muslim leaders and human rights groups.