French lawmakers have approved a controversial draft law that would ban face-covering Islamic veils from being worn in public spaces. The bill will now go to the French Senate, which is expected to approve it in September.
The bill is popular with voters in a country that has both a tradition of secularism as well as Europe’s largest Muslim population.
However, critics say the law exploits what is for all practical purposes a non-issue – only about 1,900 women among France’s five to six million Muslims wear a veil – in a bid to pander to anti-immigration voters and distract attention from France’s economic woes.
But, despite passing comfortably through the National Assembly, issues surrounding the precise definition of “public spaces” and the constitutional consequences of a ban may yet hamper the bill’s progress.
Explaining why so many PS MPs abstained, Socialist Senator Bariza Khiari told FRANCE 24 that the French Council of State (an advisory body made up of senior legal figures) had expressed misgivings at the legality of the bill’s definition of “public spaces”.
“Not a single PS member supports the wearing of the full veil – that much is obvious,” she said. “But we cannot actively support a bill that is not respectful of the advice of the Council of State”
Specifically, the Council of State warned that “the partial or complete ban of the full veil in public spaces could be potentially unconstitutional” in terms of attacking freedom of expression or religion.
The bill’s initially precise wording has been changed and now refers to garments “that hide the face” rather than the “nikab” or “burqa”.
Under the bill, it would be illegal for anyone to cover their faces in public places like streets, parks, public transport or shops.
Fines of 150 euros (190 dollars) will be imposed on those caught wearing the veil, after a six month grace period to allow time to educate Muslim women about the ban.
Men who force their wives or daughters to cover themselves for religious reasons face stiffer penalties of up to 30,000 euros and a one-year jail term.