French burqa ban in line with European trend

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French MPs have voted to ban the burqa and niqab. The move is in line with a Europe-wide trend. The French are fully aware that a ban is risky. That is why a fierce and often principled debate has resulted in a draft law that is clear and pragmatic.

Just one year ago, a French parliamentary committee began looking at whether a ban would be possible. Its members came from across the political spectrum. A communist deputy had tabled the idea of legislation.

Months of practical and legal research led to the conclusion that the garments could indeed be banned. The result was backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy. “The burqa is not an expression of religion, but a sign of subjection. The burqa is not welcome in France,” he said.

Eyes covered
People on both the left and right of French politics are largely in agreement that the all-concealing garments worn by Islamic women should not be allowed. Parliament’s lower house has now voted to outlaw the niqab, which covers the whole body with the exception of the eyes, and the burqa which even covers the eyes - with a piece of gauze.

The socialist opposition was not willing to vote for the measure because of problems with Mr Sarkozy’s approach but is broadly in favour of a ban. The socialists actually helped draft the legislation.

150-euro fine
A woman wearing the burqa in a public building or place in France will soon be liable for a fine of 150 euros. Anyone forcing her to wear such a garment will face a fine of 30,000 euros or a one-year prison sentence.

The imposition of a ban and the breadth of support for it comes as no surprise. France and other Western countries have regularly accepted large groups of migrants over recent decades. However, the world has fundamentally changed since the Muslim extremist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Islam has become suspect for many in the West and everything that can be construed as Islamic extremism engenders fear. This has led to a debate about West-European ‘identity’. How should migrants to the European Union integrate? What constitute European norms and values?

New regulations have resulted from the debate. As early as 2007, Great Britain made it possible to ban the burqa in schools. Last year, the Swiss electorate voted to outlaw minarets. Draft legislation to ban religious symbols from public buildings has been prepared in Spain. A few months ago, Europe’s first burqa ban came into law in Belgium.

The Netherlands has not bucked this trend, with right-wing MP Geert Wilders making massive gains in the recent general election. He is widely known for his opposition to what he calls the ‘Islamification’ of the Netherlands.

The French are nevertheless aware of the dangers associated with introducing a ban. These include not only alienating many Muslims, but also the possibility of legal challenges. Some experts warn that outlawing the burqa in public places breaches individual freedoms guaranteed by the French constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

These considerations have resulted in the French legislation being drafted with an eye to pragmatism. The garments have been made illegal because they constitute a menace to public order: how can the police do their job if women’s identities can be hidden behind the full veil?

President Sarkozy has said the burqa degrades women, but that idea is nowhere to be found in the new legislation. French MPs feel the garment is “totally at odds with the French Republic”. Such ideas go down well with the voters, but appear unable to be squared with the law.

The burqa will be banned – but officially only because it hinders the work of the police.

Ban busting
Some French organisations have vowed to take action against the ban. The group, Hands Off My Constitution, was set up by Rachid Nekkaz and his wife Cecile de la Roux, to oppose the new law. The pair have pledged to sell what they own to raise money to pay fines on behalf of women caught out by the law.

France has Europe's largest Muslim community but it's unclear how many people will be affected by the law. Ms de la Roux says relatively few women wear burqas in France. The question is how the law is to be enforced and how frequently such women will face fines.