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.
Efforts by French politicians to “ban the burqa” hit the wall of constitutional reality today when the Council of State, France’s top administrative court, said there was no legal way Paris could completely outlaw full Islamic veils in public. The issue has been at the centre of complex and sometimes heated debate in France in recent months, but it wasn’t clear until now how far French and European law would allow the state to go. We still don’t know exactly what the law will look like, but the back story to today’s report is a tale in itself.
France’s parliament is likely to call in a resolution for a ban on Muslim face veils in public but take longer to turn that policy into law, deputies said on Thursday. A parliamentary commission studying the sensitive issue, which has been discussed alongside a wider public debate about French national identity launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy, is due to publish its recommendations next Tuesday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy took time out from a busy schedule on Friday to welcome 18 Catholic cardinals, archbishops and bishops from across Europe into the Elysée Palace for a short talk about laïcité. The prelates were in Paris for an annual session of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE), a Swiss-based body that brings together all those bishops’ conferences. Among the topics at the three-day conference are relations between church and state in Europe, so it was natural that they’d take the opportunity to learn more about France’s trademark secular system.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last month that the burqa was not welcome in France, he unleashed a global debate on Islam and veils that drew in everyone from bloggers and full-time pundits to Al Qaeda’s North African wing. FaithWorld has dealt with it when Sarkozy spoke, in the aftermath of that speech, with a view from Afghanistan and a televised debate with a National Assembly deputy backing the ban.
France 24, the French international television channel, invited me to debate the proposed ban on burqas and niqabs today with one of the parliamentary deputies leading the campaign. That’s me on the left. On the right is Jacques Myard, deputy for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party and a spirited defender of French interests. Myard wanted to ban full facial veils in France two years ago but could not muster enough support at the time. The mood in the National Assembly has changed since then and another deputy, the Communist André Gerin, got together 58 deputies from different parties to launch the inquiry that began work yesterday.
Here’s some news for Nicolas Sarkozy. While the French president has begun a battle against the burqa in France, the famous blue garment that covers women from head to toe is losing favour back in its stronghold Afghanistan. In Herat, burqa seller Nehmatullah Yusefy says sales have dropped 50 percent since the Taliban were toppled in 2001 and he says he will soon need to start stocking other styles of Islamic dress to make up for lost profits.
The French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils.