Sarkozy orders Bill banning full Islamic veils


FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered his government to table a draft law that would ban women from wearing full veils in all public places – a more far-reaching proposal than was widely expected.

Government spokesman Luc Chatel said after yesterday’s cabinet meeting that the president had decided in favour of submitting a Bill in May to introduce an outright ban on all face-covering veils, including the niqab and burqa.

Mr Sarkozy had repeatedly said such veils were not welcome in France, but some members of the ruling UMP bloc are known to be against a total ban and the country’s highest administrative body has questioned whether such a move would be constitutional.

The president insisted that “everything should be done so that no one feels stigmatised,” according to Mr Chatel. He believed that the veils “do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women”.

The proposal has divided opinion in France, where almost 10 per cent of the 62 million population is Muslim.

It has been widely assumed for months that the government would opt for a ban on wearing full veils in state buildings and on public transport.

That was the compromise recommended in January by a cross-party report.

After six months of hearings, the report by a parliamentary commission concluded that women who covered their faces were challenging the values of the French republic and called for legislation to ban the veil in all town halls, hospitals, buses, trains and government offices.

While the proposal for an outright ban has the support of some Muslim groups in France, a number of senior UMP figures have doubts about how it could be enforced, while the leadership of the opposition Socialist Party fears such a law would stigmatise Islam and damage France’s standing in the Muslim world.

The legal basis for a total ban is also contested. Last month the Council of State, which provides the government with legal advice, responded to a request for guidance from prime minister François Fillon by warning against a full ban.

Such a measure, if applied in the street and all other public places, could violate the French constitution and European law, the council stated, as “no indisputable legal basis for a general and absolute ban on wearing a complete face-covering veil as such could be found”. Even limited restrictions would be hard to enforce, it added.

The council found there could be a solid legal basis for requiring people to present an uncovered face in certain cases, including situations involving public security; in courts, polling stations, city halls and places where the sale of items requires age verification; or at school doors, where children are picked up.

French intelligence estimates that up to 2,000 women in France, of whom nearly all are young, cover their faces.

Two-thirds are French citizens, and a quarter are converts to Islam.