French minister defends burqa ban plan
France's justice minister went before parliament to defend a hotly-debated bill that would ban burqa-style Islamic veils in public, saying hiding your face from neighbours was against French values.
Michele Alliot-Marie's speech at the National Assembly yesterday marked the start of parliamentary debate on the bill.
It is widely expected to become law, despite the concerns of many French Muslims, who fear it will stigmatise them. Many law scholars also argue it would be against the constitution.
The government has used various strategies to sell the proposal, casting it at times as a way to promote equality between the sexes, to protect oppressed women or to ensure security in public places.
Ms Alliot-Marie said it had nothing to do with religion or security - she argued simply that life in the French Republic "is carried out with a bare face".
"It is a question of dignity, equality and transparency," she said in a speech that made scant mention of Muslim veils.
Officials have taken pains to craft language that does not single out Muslims. While the proposed legislation is colloquially referred to as the "anti-burqa law", it is officially called "the bill to forbid covering one's face in public".
Ordinary Muslim headscarves are common in France, but face-covering veils are a rarity - the Interior Ministry says only 1,900 women in France wear them.
But the planned law would be a turning point for Islam in a country with a Muslim population of at least five million people, the largest in western Europe.
France is determined to protect the country's deeply-rooted secular values and the conservative government is encouraging a moderate, state-sanctioned Islam that respects the state. Last week prime minister Francois Fillon inaugurated a mosque in the Paris suburbs.
National Assembly members are expected to vote on the bill on July 13. It goes to the Senate in September.
The law would forbid face-covering Muslim veils such as the niqab or burqa in all public places in France, even in the street. It calls for £122 fines, and or citizenship classes, for women who break the law.
Part of the bill is aimed at husbands and fathers who impose such veils on female family members. Anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil risks a year in prison and a £25,000 fine - with both those penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.
France "does not accept attacks on human dignity," Ms Alliot-Marie said. "It does not tolerate the abuse of vulnerable people."
France's opposition Socialists agree with much of the draft law, although they say a ban should not be applicable everywhere, but in certain places such as government buildings, hospitals and public transport.
The justice minister argued that the law must be applicable everywhere to be coherent - but nonetheless presented a host of exceptions to the face-covering ban, such as masks worn for health reasons, sports like fencing and at public fetes such as carnivals.
Authorities in several European countries have been debating similar bans. Belgium's lower house has enacted a ban on the face-covering veil, though it must be ratified by the upper chamber.
Said Aalla, president of a mosque in the eastern city of Strasbourg, said he believes legislators had the right to pass laws on societal issues. But like many French Muslims, he was concerned about how police would enforce it.
"Is this a law that is going to be implemented in a serene way, so as not to stigmatise the Muslim population?" he said.
London-based Amnesty International has urged French MPs to reject the bill and French anti-racism group MRAP, which opposes such dress, has said a law would be "useless and dangerous".
France banned common Muslim headscarves and other obvious religious symbols from classrooms in 2004.