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Panel leans to partial burqa ban

A parliamentary panel will recommend on Tuesday that France ban face-covering Muslim veils in public locations such as hospitals and schools but not in private buildings or on the street, the group’s president said.


The decision appeared to indicate that the 32-member, multi-party panel had heeded warnings that a full ban of the all-encompassing niqabs would be unfair, possibly unconstitutional, and could even cause trouble in a country where Islam is the second largest religion.

The approximately 170-page report, to be released on Tuesday, culminates a six-month inquiry into why a tiny minority of Muslim women wear such veils and the implications for France.

The work began after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced in June that such garb “is not welcome” on French territory. However, Sarkozy has since pulled back from committing himself to a full ban.

Many consider such dress a gateway to extremism. But it also is widely seen as an insult to gender equality and an offence to France’s profoundly secular foundations.

Parliament will not be required to act on Tuesday’s recommendation. And given the deep divisions within the panel – its 12 Socialist members refused to vote in a dispute with the governing right – the recommendation for a partial ban on the niqabs may only result in a non-binding government resolution.

The panel’s mission, and a separate national identity debate on immigration, already have left some of France’s Muslims feeling discriminated against, said Mohammed Moussaoui, who heads an umbrella group of various Muslim organisations.

A 2004 law already bans Muslim headscarves in classrooms.

Now Muslim religious leaders, along with many experts, warn that a “general and absolute” law banning niqabs in the streets would stigmatise all Muslims and have other dire consequences, even driving some to extremism.

They were joined last week by Catholic and Jewish leaders who said they consider such a drastic step unnecessary. Monsignor Andre Vingt-Trois said he is not against anti-veil rules in “precise places”, but doesn’t want to see the state become involved with how people dress. “Shall we choose between the full-body veil and nude women in ads on top of a four-wheel drive?” he said last week.

France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, estimated at about five million, but only several thousand Muslim women at best are thought to wear such veils, usually pinned across the face to cover all but the eyes. Worn with a long, dark robe, such clothing is customarily associated with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

“It is perhaps a marginal problem but it is the visible part of the iceberg,” MP Andre Gerin, president of the parliamentary panel, said in an interview. “Behind the iceberg is a black tide of … fundamentalism.” He denounced those he called “gurus” or “French Taliban” who, he said, promote a radical brand of Islam that forces women and girls to hide themselves.

Gerin, the panel’s only communist, said Tuesday’s report will recommend that veils be banned in public spaces such as hospitals and schools, but not in private buildings or on the street.

Critics of a street ban of the veils raised concern about the constitutionality of outlawing such dress.

“I don’t think an ideology should be fought through constraining measures but through ideas,” Moussaoui, the Muslim leader, said in an interview. “It’s very difficult to talk about the liberation of women through a law that constrains.”

A poll by the IPSOS firm published in this week’s Le Point suggests that a majority of French disagree – with 57 per cent of the 960 adults questioned favouring a full ban on niqabs and 37 per cent opposing one.

Gerin, who wants a ban, stressed the need to move “progressively” toward a general law banning the attire in the streets and to work “hand in hand” with Muslim leaders, associations and others who might hold sway among Muslims.