The French parliament unanimously approved a resolution that would declare the full facial veil known as a burqa as an affront to French values, paving the way for a full-fledged ban on the garment worn by a small minority of French Muslim women.
The proposals also condemn the wearing of the niqab, a veil that covers the face but allows a slit for the eyes, in contrast to the burqa, in which the eyes are covered by a layer of netting or lace.
The resolution had the backing of both French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party and the opposition Socialists. It passed with a vote of 434 to 0 in the 577-seat National Assembly. About 30 members of the Communist Party walked out before the vote in protest.
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The non-binding resolution passed on Tuesday declares that “radical practices which violate the dignity and equality between men and women, such as the wearing of the full veil, are contrary to the values of the republic.”
The parliament is to discuss draft legislation that would actually ban the attire next week. It is expected to be put to a vote in July.
The draft legislation would criminalize the wearing of the veil in public, including at institutions like schools or government offices, as well as on the streets. It would also apply to tourists from outside of France.
Under the draft law, women who wear veils covering the face could face fines. Men found guilty of forcing their wives or daughters to wear it could face prison sentences. But the bill has less support from French lawmakers, including Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, than the resolution.
Aubry said a complete ban would not be feasible, and “risks being a source of stigmatization and mostly [being] inefficient because it cannot be implemented.
Debate on the burqa ban has prompted warnings that it could provoke community tension in a country that is home to biggest Muslim minority, which estimated at between five and six million.
Supporters of the ban argue they are not attacking religious freedoms but rather upholding women’s rights, with one prominent group saying the new law will liberate young Muslim girls growing up in France.
Opponents warn that the move will further stigmatise French Muslims by taking aim at a tiny minority — fewer than 2,000 women, according to the interior ministry — who wear the head-to-toe veil.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and the opposition Socialists along with other smaller parties have all agreed to back the five-point resolution in the National Assembly.
Lawmakers will declare that “radical practices which violate the dignity and equality between men and women, such as the wearing of the full veil, are contrary to the values of the republic.”
Parliament “deems it necessary that all useful means be put in place to ensure the protection of women who are subjected to violence and pressure and in particular are forced to wear the full veil,” the resolution says.
French backing for a burqa ban across the political spectrum is sometimes hard to understand. [ ] The idea is backed by politicians of all stripes .
One reason for this is France’s tradition of laÃ¯citÃ©, a strict form of secularism, enshrined by law since 1905, and which keeps religion out of public institutions. At the time, the anti-clericalism behind the movement was largely inspired by the political left, and this legacy informs much left-wing thinking on secular matters today. When the French right proposed a ban on the headscarf (and other “conspicuous” religious symbols) in state schools in 2004, for example, the left voted massively in favour. The Socialist Party is expected to vote in favour of this week’s parliamentary resolution.
Unlike the headscarf ban, however, the upcoming law against the wearing of the burqa is not couched in terms of secularism. When a ban was first mooted, it was assumed that the legal basis for it would be French laÃ¯citÃ©. Politicians soon realised, though, that to use this argument would be to accept that the burqa is a religious prescription of Islam. Most Muslim opinion-makers in France, including the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), an official body, and female Muslim ministers, such as Fadela Amara, reject this. The CFCM has clearly stated its “opposition to the practice on national territory”, although it also argues that a ban would stigmatise Islam.
Instead, the French are considering two grounds for outlawing the burqa, each of which—unlike laÃ¯citÃ©—could potentially be applied in other countries. One is security, and the need to be identifiable at all times. The other is “dignity” and “equality between men and women”. Although very few women in France cover their faces—no more than 2,000, according to official estimates—it is a new trend. Politicians and researchers say that the wearing of the headscarf by French Muslims, many of whom are of North African origin where there is no tradition of covering the face, is a sign of manipulation by hardline Islamic radicals keen to test the French state. The French are unapologetic about wanting to reassert “the values of the republic” by going ahead with a ban.