No burqas in France? Ruling party moves to ban veils in public.

The new effort to outlaw the full-length veil - niqabs and burqas - in public trumps earlier efforts to ban it only in some official buildings. The move comes at a time when French Muslims say they are being targeted as outsiders or not fully French.

Farid Alouache/REUTERS
A woman wears a burqa as she shops with her family at a street market in Roubaix northern France, August 9, 2009. France's ruling party has announced plans to present a bill to ban Islamic veils in all public places.

The French ruling party of President Nicolas Sarkozy now affirms it will present a bill to ban full-length Islamic veils in all public places in France. It won't wait for the results of a parliamentary inquiry into the all-covering niqab and burqa to be published. The move adds fuel to an increasingly hot debate on French identity that has minorities here upset.

A nationwide identity debate, engineered by the ruling UMP party last month, has evolved into an embarrassingly unruly discussion about Muslims and northern Africans in France. And it comes on the heels of a surprise vote in neighboring Switzerland last month to outlaw the construction of new minarets at Muslim worship sites.

The UMP effort to outlaw the full-length veil in public trumps earlier efforts to ban it only in some official buildings, and comes at a time when French Muslims say they are being targeted as outsiders or not fully French.

Yet UMP party leader Jean-François Cope yesterday said veils that cover a woman’s entire face are a “violation of individual liberty” and a “negation” of one’s identity and that of others in a public milieu.

Under the proposed law, women would not be able to move in public with their faces fully covered. The legal rendering is that burqas and all-covering niqabs are a public order issue, and not a religious practice issue - as is the French ban on headscarves in schools, which has been carried out to uphold French secularism, known as laïcité.

Offenders wearing veils would receive a fine – though lawmakers now say there will be a period of mediation following the initial charge.

Vote expected in early Jan.

A parliamentary vote on the ban is expected in early January. That means it will preceed the almost-completed findings of a national study established with much fanfare last summer – when the burqa issue rose to prominence in a speech by Mr. Sarkozy. He said the veil dehumanizes women, is out of keeping with French values, and is “not welcome” in France.

Yet Bernard Accoyer, president of the National Assembly (and a UMP member) appeared at odds over the timing of the vote, saying that it seems “premature” with a national report being submitted later in January. "On such an societal issue, involving the fundamental principles of our Republic, the search for a large consensus is needed,” he told reporters.

Opposition politicians ridiculed the burqa vote as establishing “clothes police,” and the French daily Le Monde said Wednesday that the move was political “theater.”

The decision to forge ahead with a vote to ban came in a closed door meeting late Tuesday, as UMP members gathered at the Assembly for further talks on the controversial French identity discussion.

Controversial identity debate

The UMP launched the identity debate at a time when many French argue that social and ethnic tensions are being ignored. The concept of the discussion was at first welcomed by such figures on the left as Ségolène Royal, presidential candidate of the Socialist party in 2007.

Yet racial overtones and slurs among French UMP politicians and ordinary French during the identity debate – combined with a vaguely anti-Muslim echo effect here after the Swiss vote on minarets – has left many French intellectuals and analysts charging that the discussion is poorly conceived. One small town mayor on France 2 TV in the identity debate described France as possibly being “gobbled up” by “them.”

During the closed UMP discussion Tuesday, a lawmaker stated that "the day when there are as many minarets as there are cathedrals in France, it won't be France any more." The comment reportedly caused female Muslim UMP member, Nora Berra, to storm out of the meeting, slamming the door behind her.

On Europe 1 radio today Ms. Berra stated that she feels the dynamics of the burqa issue, and the identity debate, appear to target ethnic and religious groups and, as such, are violations of France’s sacred civic principle of laïcité, which forbids any public religious expression or targeting of citizens on religious grounds.

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