French MPs to vote on burkha ban that could imprison men who force wives to wear them

From The Daily Mail

France could ban burkhas by the end of September after a series of parliamentary votes was scheduled to begin.

Deputies, or members of the lower house, are tomorrow likely to approve the measure outlawing face-covering veils despite outrage among the country’s 5million Muslims.

And the could be ratified in September when Senators are almost certain to approve the ban which has received overwhelming support from voters.

There was little resistance among lawmakers today as they debated bill that proposes to fine wearers £140 and imprison men who force their wives to put on the outfit.

But the ban could be shot down by France’s constitutional watchdog or the European Court of Human Rights.

That could dampen efforts under way in other European countries toward banning the veils.

It would also be a humiliation for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government, which has devoted much attention to a bill that would affect only an estimated 1,900 women in France.

The main body representing French Muslims says face-covering veils are not required by Islam and not suitable in France, but it worries that the law will stigmatize Muslims in general.

The niqab and burkha are widely seen in France as a gateway to extremism and an attack on women’s rights and secularism, a central value of modern-day France. Critics say a ban is a cynical ploy to attract far-right voters.

The government has struggled – and failed, some legal observers say – to come up with a strong legal basis for a ban.

In March, France’s highest administrative body, the Council of State, warned that it could be found unconstitutional. It rejected possible legal justifications one by one, including the French tradition of secularism, equality for women, human dignity and concerns about public security.

In the end, the government’s central legal argument is that covering one’s face doesn’t square with French values.

Life in France is ‘carried out with a bare face,’ Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said last week, opening debate at the National Assembly.

As legal reasoning, she invoked the notion of public policy doctrine, a country’s moral and social rules.

Face-covering veils ‘call into question the idea of integration, which is founded on the acceptance of the values of our society,’ Alliot-Marie said.

The legislation would forbid face-covering Muslim veils in all public places in France, even in the street.

It calls for £140 fines or citizenship classes, or both.

The bill is also aimed at husbands and fathers who impose such veils on women and girls.

Anyone convicted of forcing someone else to wear the garb risks a year of prison and a £25,000 fine – with both those penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.

Officials have taken pains to craft language that does not single out Muslims. While the proposed legislation is colloquially referred to as the ‘anti-burkha law,’ it is officially called ‘the bill to forbid concealing one’s face in public.’

It refers neither to Islam nor to veils – leading to an often surreal disconnect between the text and discussion in parliament about it. While officials insist the law against face-covering would apply to everyone, not just Muslims, they cite a host of exceptions, including masks for health reasons, for fencing, for carnivals and festivals.

Legislator Berengere Poletti, of Sarkozy’s conservative party, argued that women in such garb ‘wear a sign of alienation on their faces’ and ‘must be liberated,’ even if they say the apparel is their own choice.

Communist Andre Gerin, who also supports a ban, said that ‘talking about liberty to defend the wearing of the full veil is totally cynical – for me, the full veil is a walking coffin, a muzzle.’

Socialist Jean Glavany, one of the few lawmakers to offer stinging criticism of a ban, said dwelling on questions of French identity and whether burkhas are welcome in France ‘is nothing more than the fear of those who are different, who come from abroad, who aren’t like us, who don’t share our values.’

He was also one of several lawmakers to question the bill’s ‘judicial fragility.’

To address that widespread concern, the conservative majority has taken the unusual step of asking the Constitutional Council watchdog to examine the bill once it passes parliament – a move usually made by opponents of legislation.

Down the road, the law could face another challenge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where decisions are binding.

In February, the court shot down a Turkish decision that convicted dozens of people for wearing religious clothing in public.

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