French MPs to denounce Muslim veils, ban later

PARIS Thu Jan 21, 2010 1:53pm EST

Women wearing niqabs walk walk on a commercial street in Marseille, December 24, 2009. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Women wearing niqabs walk walk on a commercial street in Marseille, December 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

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PARIS (Reuters) - France's parliament is likely to call in a resolution for a ban on Muslim face veils in public but take longer to turn that policy into law, deputies said on Thursday.

A parliamentary commission studying the sensitive issue, which has been discussed alongside a wider public debate about French national identity launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy, is due to publish its recommendations next Tuesday.

Polls say most voters want a legal ban on full-length face veils, known here by the Afghan term burqa although the few worn in France are Middle Eastern niqabs showing the eyes. Critics say a law would stigmatize Muslims and be unenforceable.

Jean-Francois Cope, parliamentary floor leader for Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, told France Inter radio said the plan was for "a resolution to explain and then a law to decide." A parliamentary resolution would not be legally binding.

Andre Gerin, head of the commission, agreed that deputies needed more time to draft a law, but told the daily Le Figaro: "The ban on the full facial veil will be absolute."

The debate has become entangled in campaigning for regional elections in March, in which Sarkozy's conservative UMP party hopes to break a near-monopoly of the opposition Socialists, who govern 20 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France.

Parliament was originally expected to pass a law before the election, but the government now wants that after the polls.

Positions cross party lines. The Socialist Party opposes a legal ban but some of its deputies have called for one. Commission head Gerin is a Communist.

LEGAL COMPLICATIONS

Police reports say fewer than 2,000 women in France wear full veils, but deputies such as Gerin -- whose constituency in Lyon has many Muslim residents -- insist this is a growing trend that Paris must legislate to stop in its tracks.

Gerin said France also had to deal with "the French Taliban who force women to be veiled. By 'Taliban' I mean the husband, big brother, family, even the neighborhood, because there is a kind of sharia (Islamic law) in some areas. The full veil is the visible part of this black tide of fundamentalism."

Sarkozy has declared the burqa an affront to women's dignity and unwelcome in France. Supporters of a ban also justify it on the basis of France's secular system.

Such arguments appeal to many voters, but Guy Carcassonne, a constitutional expert, said they were on shaky legal ground.

"If it's only a law banning the covering of faces in public, that should be no problem," he told Reuters. "If the law is based on secularism or simply directed against the burqa, that could pose a problem."

Defining where a ban should apply is one headache facing the lawmakers. Some say it should apply on the premises of municipal services but not on the street, which prompts the question of whether a veiled woman could board a city bus.

Another issue is whether police would enforce a complete ban by stopping and fining veiled women on the street, at the risk of protests from the person concerned or bystanders.

(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet, editing by Paul Taylor)

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