18 May 2010

French bill to ban veiled faces would impose fines

By Sylvie Corbet, The Associated Press

PARIS - A bill to ban Muslim veils covering the face to be presented to France's Cabinet on Wednesday calls for fines and, in some cases, citizenship classes.

The bill turns on the "dignity of the person," rather than security issues as many speculated would be the case, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press.

Article 1 of the bill stipulates that "no one can wear a garment intended to hide the face in the public space." The ban covers streets.

The divisive legislation proposed by the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy is to go to the lower house of parliament for debate in July and to the Senate in September. There is little doubt the bill will pass despite opposition.

Sarkozy set the machine to ban burqa-style veils in motion last June when he said such garments were "not welcome" in France, which has western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at 5 million.

The bill calls for a fine of €150 ($185) for those breaking the law and eventual citizenship classes. The measure creates a new crime — inciting to hide the face — and anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil would risk a year in prison and a €15,000 ($18,555) fine.

The National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, is to start debating the bill in July and the Senate in September. The text, which could be amended in the process, also foresees a six-month delay in its application to explain the law to the public and mediate with recalcitrant women.

The Muslim community has voiced concern over the planned legislation, saying it stigmatizes them as they battle what Muslim leaders say is growing Islamophobia.

The Council of State, France's highest administrative body, issued a warning in a preliminary report March 30 that such a measure risks raising constitutional questions. It confirmed its "unfavorable opinion" on a general ban in a report last week, according to the daily Le Figaro.

Sarkozy decided to ignore such warnings in the name of what he says is women's dignity.

The issue has occupied public debate for months even though a tiny minority of Muslim women — estimated at 1,900 — wear veils that hide the face. Critics claim the unpopular president is playing to the far-right in a bid for their support.

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