French senate votes overwhelmingly to ban full veil


FRANCE MOVED a step closer to banning the full veil last night when the Senate overwhelmingly adopted the proposal.

The upper house voted almost unanimously – by 246 to 1 – for the bill, and it is now due to come into effect next spring after a six-month grace period to allow Muslim leaders and groups to persuade covered women that their veils violate French values.

Most opposition senators abstained from yesterday’s vote.

The main obstacle to the bill’s enactment is now the Constitutional Council, which is likely to assess the legality of the measure in the coming months.

The state’s legal advisory body, the Council of State, has suggested that an outright ban on veils such as the niqab and burka could be unconstitutional, but the government remains confident that the measure can be enacted.

Speaking during yesterday’s Senate debate, justice minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said living with an uncovered face was “a question of dignity and equality”. The issue was not one of security or religion, but “respect for our republican principles”.

The bill allows for a fine of €150 for any woman who wears a face-covering veil in public. Anyone forcing a woman to cover her face could receive a one-year jail sentence and a €15,000 fine.

The proposal has been hugely contentious in France, where almost 10 per cent of the population of 62 million is Muslim.

Some deputies in the ruling UMP bloc favoured a partial restriction that would ban face veils in state buildings and on public transport, but Mr Sarkozy rejected that option and ordered his government to prepare a wider ban.

It is estimated that up to 2,000 women in France cover their faces. Two-thirds are French citizens, and one-quarter are converts to Islam.

The National Assembly, France’s lower house, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ban in July after the Socialist Party, the Greens and the Communists refused to take part in the vote.

The proposal won the support of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, the centre-right Nouveau Centre and a small number of left-wing deputies.

The Socialist Party insisted it was against the wearing of face veils but warned that approving an outright ban was a “legal risk” and that censure from the Constitutional Council would be “an invaluable gift for the fundamentalists we are all combating”.