The French government is drawing up a law to ban Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil in public, despite advice that it could be illegal.
The new law will stop the niqab and the burka from being worn in the streets, shops and markets and not just in public buildings.
Nicolas Sarkozy is to press ahead with the bill claiming that the veil is an “assault on women’s dignity”.
“We’re legislating for the future. Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and of a rejection of our values,” Luc Chatel, a spokesman for Mr Sarkozy, on leaving a cabinet meeting led by the President.
Last month, the State Council — France’s top administrative authority — warned Mr Sarkozy against a full ban on the veil, suggesting instead an order that women uncover their faces for identity checks or for state business.
It suggested a full ban could be declared unconstitutional and overturned in court.
However, there remains broad support in parliament for such a ban and the government is determined to press on with a law, which it says would affect only around 2,000 Muslim French women who currently cover their faces.
Most Muslim women, in France’s immigrant communities and around the world, do not wear a full veil, but the niqab, which covers the face apart from the eyes, is widely worn on the Arabian peninsula and in the Gulf states.
The burka, a shapeless full-body cloak that covers the face with a fabric grille, is worn in some areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Muslim scholars differ in their interpretation of the Koran‘s rules on what constitutes modest dress, and many argue that veils are a cultural tradition rather than a religious obligation.
In France, the garments are widely identified with fundamentalist strains of Islam and with the isolation and repression of women in some communities, and politicians accuse radical clerics of promoting their use.
“We’re not going to let this phenomenon drift,” Mr Chatel said.
France is a firmly secular country but has western Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated at some 5 million. France worries about clashes in values as well as about a spread of radical Islam. Authorities widely see the veil in light of gender equality and security issues.
In neighboring Belgium, a similar initiative for a ban on full veils in public places, including in the streets, is expected to become law in July.
Muslim leaders in France say that the face-covering veil is not a religious requirement of Islam but have cautioned against banning the garment.
The government spokesman said the French president considered that burqa-style veils that hide the face, such as niqabs, “do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women.”
The government “is ready to take legal risks because the stakes are worth it,” said Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
France outlawed Muslim headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols from classrooms in 2004 after a marathon parliamentary debate and, “we are acting in the same way today. We have decided to legislate,” Chatel said.
Numerous school girls wore headscarves in class, but only a tiny minority of women wear the all-covering veil. Nevertheless, debate on the question of whether a law is needed and how far it should reach has continued for nearly a year.
Muslim leaders say that the debate itself has stigmatized Muslims, as has a national debate on the French identity.