French report recommends ban on face-covering veils in public transport, other services

By Elaine Ganley, AP
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

French report wants limits on Muslim face veil

PARIS — Mass transport, hospitals, post offices — these and all public services in France would be off-limits to Muslim women wearing face-covering veils if a parliamentary panel’s recommendations, released Tuesday, become law.

The panel’s No. 2 predicts such a ban by year’s end.

As envisaged by the 32-member multiparty panel, a woman seeking unemployment benefits or other state aid, for instance, would walk away empty-handed if she refused to uncover her face. She would also be denied entrance to the local town hall, the bus, the Metro and the university classroom.

A panoply of recommendations aimed at dissuading Muslim women from hiding their faces is contained in the report, which was drawn up after six months of hearings from experts, Muslim leaders and others. One of the other recommendations: denying resident cards and citizenship to women who wear all-encompassing veils.

However, the panel was bitterly divided over recommending a ban on face-covering veils on the street, and that was not among the 15 recommendations retained after a vote.

President Nicolas Sarkozy put the issue before the French in June when he told a joint gathering of parliament that face-covering veils “are not welcome” in France.

Only several thousand women in France are thought to wear burqa-style garments, usually pinning a “niqab” across their faces to go with their long, dark robes. Such veils are widely seen as a gateway to extremism and an attack on gender equality and secularism, a basic value of modern-day France.

“The all-enveloping veil represents, in an extraordinary way, everything that France instinctively rejects. This is the symbol of the enslavement of women and the banner … of extremist fundamentalism,” said Bernard Accoyer, president of the National Assembly, the lower house, after being presented with the report.

Despite the acrimony, the recommendation to ban the veils in public sector facilities could be in place “before the end of the year,” conservative lawmaker Eric Raoult, the panel’s No. 2, told The Associated Press.

“We need maybe six months or a little more to explain what we want,” he told The AP, adding that “by the end of 2010″ there could be such an interdiction.

Accoyer was more vague but told a news conference that “we can certainly find solutions in a brief time.”

Numerous experts have noted that a 2004 law banning the Muslim headscarf and other “ostentatious” religious signs in primary and secondary schools has pushed some young girls out of school and contributed to the founding of private Muslim schools.

Muslim leaders have said the face-covering veil is not required by Islam and is an “extreme practice.” However, the main body representing Muslims has also voiced displeasure with the panel’s work, saying it contributed to stigmatizing Muslims, along with an ongoing debate on France’s national identity that has focused on immigrants.

France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe — estimated at 5 million — and discrimination has become a grave source of concern.

On Tuesday, just hours after the report was presented, Sarkozy visited a Muslim cemetery in northern France that has been desecrated twice. Secularism, he said in a speech honoring Muslims who fought and died for France, “is not the negation of religion.” But it is “an essential component of our identity.”

Bitterness spilled beyond the lawmakers’ forum as a group of hardline Muslims forced their way into a mosque in Drancy, northeast of Paris, threatening the imam, or prayer leader, who came out last week for a full ban on the veils.

Hassen Chalghoumi, known for his outreach to the Jewish community, said on Radio Orient that the intruders objected to his stance on the veil and “want me to stop talking and stop showing a tolerant Islam.” He filed a legal complaint alleging “death threats” and met with officials at the Interior Ministry.

The president of the parliamentary panel, Andre Gerin, has stressed that the goal of any ban is not to stigmatize women with face-covering veils but to rout out people he calls “gurus” who indoctrinate and force even young girls to cover themselves.

The recommendations show attention, too, to public sector employees dealing with women in full veil who refuse to remove it. In particular, there have been reports of confrontations in hospital settings in which a husband refuses to allow his wife to be treated by a male doctor.

Among the 15 recommendations that passed a panel vote is one calling for special training by state employees to manage such confrontations and another to “systematically signal” when minors are seen wearing full-body veils.

Neither the parliament nor the government is obliged to act on the panel’s recommendations. No action is likely before March regional elections.

The most likely first step would be passing a resolution denouncing the veil and, if the current text is kept, “proclaiming that all of France says no to the veil.”

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