The French government decided Wednesday to impose a $185 fine on women who wear a full-face Islamic veil in public, pushing ahead with a controversial ban despite signs of tension between France’s Muslims and the Christian-tradition majority.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said his government was forwarding the legislation to parliament because it had a “moral responsibility” to uphold traditional European values in the face of an increasingly visible Muslim population, estimated at more than 5 million, the largest in Western Europe. He called the course chosen by his government “demanding” but “just,” and he insisted that the law was not intended to stigmatize the country’s Muslims.
France is one of a number of Western European countries seeking to forbid the full-face veil, called the burqa in Afghanistan and the niqab in North Africa. Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives last month approved a nationwide ban, which must now be considered by the Senate. Legislators in several other countries have introduced similar bills, and the Swiss government has vowed to impose a ban administratively.
The French proposal has drawn heavy support, with up to 60 percent of those questioned in opinion polls saying restraints are necessary. But Muslims here have complained that they feel singled out for a practice that, according to an Interior Ministry estimate, concerns fewer than 2,000 women in a country of 64 million inhabitants.
The French legislation approved by the full cabinet is scheduled to come to a vote in the National Assembly in July and in the Senate in September. Sarkozy’s conservative coalition has comfortable majorities in both houses.
After six months of what officials described as “pedagogy” to educate the public following the expected Senate approval, the new law would enter into force about a year from now. It would give police the right to demand that women lift their veils to identify themselves. If they refused, police could hold them for up to four hours for an identity check. If cited for wearing the veil, women would be referred to a prosecutor, who could fine them, force them to attend “citizenship classes” or both.
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