Paris: French lawmakers take a final
vote Tuesday on a law banning face-covering veils in public
spaces, although the constitutional court may yet strike down
the measure before it comes into force.
The bill makes no reference to Islam, but has been
promoted by President Nicolas Sarkozy`s government as a
measure to protect Muslim women from being forced to wear
full-face veils such as the burqa or the niqab.
The Senate vote follows one in France`s National
Assembly that passed a law to make wearing the garment in
public illegal in July by 335 votes to one, and the upper
house is also expected to approve the measure comfortably.
Some other European countries are mulling similar
bans, but critics of the law in its proposed form believe that
it will eventually be overturned by the judges of the
Constitutional Council, France`s highest legal body.
While Sarkozy`s determination to ban the niqab and the
burqa has won enough political support to carry it, opponents
argue that it breaches French and European human rights
The bill defines public space very broadly, including
not just government buildings and public transport, but all
streets, markets and thoroughfares, private businesses and
Similar laws are pending in Belgium, Spain and some
Italian municipalities, but the ban is particularly sensitive
in France, whose rundown city suburbs are home to Europe`s
biggest Muslim minority.
Critics say the law exploits a non-problem -- 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 to distract attention from France`s economic woes.
Most French Muslims come from France`s former colonies
in North and West Africa, where wearing the veil is rare,
rather than from the Arabian peninsula or Pakistan, where
niqabs and burqas are a cultural tradition.
Some Muslim leaders say they support steps to
discourage women from wearing the full veil, but that a law
would unfairly stigmatise a vulnerable group.
Mindful that a law with a broad scope might be struck
down by the European court of human rights, which protects
religious freedoms, Sarkozy`s own ruling party has asked for
the text to be examined by the Constitutional Council.
Fines of 150 euros will be imposed on those caught
wearing the veil, after a six-month grace period to allow time
to educate women.
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.