Paris: France`s lower house of Parliament overhwelmingly approved a ban on burqa-like Islamic veils Tuesday, a move that is popular among French voters despite serious concerns from Muslim groups and human rights advocates.
There were 336 votes for the bill and just one against it at the National Assembly. Most members of the main opposition group, the Socialist Party, refused to participate in the vote — though they support a ban, they have differences with President Nicolas Sarkozy`s conservatives over some aspects of it.
The ban on face-covering veils will go in September to the Senate, where it also is likely to pass. Its biggest hurdle will likely come after that, when France`s constitutional watchdog scrutinizes it. Some legal scholars say there is a chance it could be deemed unconstitutional.
The main body representing French Muslims says face-covering veils are not required by Islam and not suitable in France, but it worries that the law will stigmatize Muslims in general.
France has Europe`s largest Muslim population, estimated to be about 5 million of the country`s 64 million people. While ordinary headscarves are common, only about 1,900 women in France are believed to wear face-covering veils. Champions of the bill say they oppress women.
With the proposed ban, the government also is seeking to insist that integration is the only path for immigrant minorities. France has had difficulty integrating generations of immigrants and their children, as witnessed by weeks of rioting by youths, many of them minorities, in troubled neighborhoods in 2005.
At the National Assembly, few dissenters have spoken out about civil liberties or fears of fanning anti-Islam sentiment.
The niqab and burqa are generally seen here as a gateway to extremism and an attack on women`s rights and secularism, a central value of modern-day France.
The full veil "is the banner of a sectarian ideology" and threatens "human dignity," the head of French women`s rights group Ni Putes Ni Soumises, Sihem Habchi, wrote in an essay in Tuesday`s Liberation daily.
Critics say the proposed ban is a cynical ploy by conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy`s government to attract far-right voters.