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France moves towards banning Muslim veil in public

PARIS (Reuters) - France is moving toward a ban on wearing face-covering Islamic veils in public, with the government set to examine a draft bill next month amid heated debate over women’s rights and religious freedom.

A woman wears a burqa as she walks on a street in Saint-Denis, near Paris, April 2, 2010. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out in favor for a complete ban on Wednesday, and the relevant bill will be presented to the cabinet in May, government spokesman Luc Chatel said on Wednesday.

Sarkozy believed that the full veil, commonly referred to as the burqa in France, “hurts the dignity of women and is not acceptable in French society,” he told reporters.

Chatel quoted Sarkozy as saying that everything should be done so that “no one feels stigmatized because of their faith and religious practices.”

The proposal has attracted both fierce criticism and praise in the home of the largest Muslim community in the 27-member European Union. Almost 10 percent of France’s 62 million population is Muslim.

Most French voters back a ban, polls have shown, but legal experts have warned that it could violate the constitution.

France’s highest court, which advises the government on the preparation of new laws, said in March a ban could be unlawful.

The idea of a ban was first floated last year by mayors who noticed more and more women in their neighborhoods covering themselves with full veils. A parliamentary commission was set up to examine the proposal during six months of hearings.

Since then, many feminists from France’s poor, multi-ethnic suburbs have spoken out in support of a ban, saying it could help young women who did not want to wear the veil but were forced to do so by their partners or families.

Others, however, see the ban as part of a rising hostility against Islam and its symbols -- from veils to minarets -- and argue that many Muslim women actually want to cover up.

The debate has spread as far as Afghanistan, where some women’s rights activists expressed outrage at the French proposal, saying they disliked the burqa but women should be free to wear whatever they wanted.

The parliamentary commission wrapped up its investigation in January and recommended that parliament pass a resolution denouncing face-covering veils, and then vote the strictest law possible to prevent women from wearing them.

Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, writing by Sophie Hardach; Editing by Mark Heinrich