Paris: France and Belgium are steadfast in ban on face coverings worn by Muslim women.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday ordered legislation that would ban women from wearing Islamic veils that hide the face in the street and other public places.
In seeking to forbid the garment from public view, Sarkozy defied the advice of experts sought by the government who warned that such a broad ban risked contravening France's Constitution.
Such a measure would put France on the same track as Belgium, which is also moving toward a complete ban in a similar reaction as Islamic culture has come in conflict with native European values. Sarkozy has repeatedly said that such clothing oppresses women and is "not welcome" in France.
Belgian lawmakers are set on Thursday to impose a ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public, the first clampdown of its kind in Europe, unless the nation's political crisis disrupts their vote.
On March 31, the federal Parliament's home affairs committee voted unanimously to endorse a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.
Those who ignore it could face a fine of EUR 15-25 (USD 20-34) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days, unless they have police permission to wear the garments.
Government spokesman Luc Chatel said after Wednesday's weekly Cabinet meeting that the President decided the government should submit a bill to Parliament in May on an overall ban on burqa-like veils.
"The ban on veils covering the whole face should be general, in every public space, because the dignity of women cannot be put in doubt," Chatel said.
The decision to seek a full ban, rather than a limited ban, came as a surprise. After a Cabinet meeting just a week ago, the government spokesman announced a decision for legislation that bans the veil but takes into account conclusions on the matter by the Council of State, France's highest administrative office.
The government had sought the council's opinion to ensure a law would pass constitutional muster. The Council of State advised that a full ban would be "legally very fragile”. A six-month parliamentary inquiry also concluded that a full ban would raise constitutional issues, as well as enforcement problems.
"It's a transgression, an aggression even, on the level of personal liberty," said Abdellatif Lemsibak, a member of the National Federation of Muslims of France. "The Muslims have the right to an orthodox expression of their religion ... it shocks me."
France is a firmly secular country but has western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at some five 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 neighbouring Belgium, a similar initiative for a ban on full veils in public places, including in the streets, is expected to become law in July.
The governing parties and opposition agree on the move, and the full house is widely expected to easily endorse the draft law, which is on the agenda for Thursday.
But a deep political crisis is looming after a party threatened to pull out of the government if tense negotiations between the French and Dutch-language communities on power-sharing are not finalised in 24 hours.
"There is a hitch. The agenda of the chamber could be thrown into disarray depending on how the political situation evolves," one official said.
A leading rights watchdog late Wednesday warned against the move saying it would be counterproductive.
"Bans like this lead to a lose-lose situation," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so."
It said there was no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatened public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
(With Agencies’ inputs)
First Published: Thursday, April 22, 2010, 11:02