Farid Alouache / Reuters
A woman wearing a niqab shops in a supermarket in northern France, January 6.

France moves toward burqa ban amid concern over Muslim integration

A parliamentary report may spur France to adopt a burqa ban in public or state venues like buses, hospitals, and schools – though it also condemns 'Islamophobia.'

A controversial French parliament report on the burqa issued here today recommends outlawing the full-length Muslim veil in public or state venues like buses, hospitals, and schools – though it also condemns what it calls “Islamophobia."

The much-anticipated 200-page study fell just short of calling for a complete ban on the face-covering veil worn mainly by women from Gulf states, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – with six members of the parliamentary commission arguing in favor of a full ban, and six against.

The report, which security and identification needs, is expected to provide ballast for a law to ban, in some form, the burqa, obliging "people not only to show their faces in public-run areas, but keep their faces uncovered as long as they stay there.”

"The whole of France says 'no' to the full veil," according to the report, though polls show opposition to the burqa at closer to 60 percent, still a high figure.

The “burqa debate” in France rose nearly overnight like a pelting summer storm when Mr. Sarkozy last July targeted the burqa as an affront to human and civil rights in a modern secular society – though the debate is widely seen here as a proxy for discussing latent fears and concerns about integrating Muslims, mostly former immigrants, who now number 5 million. The number of burqa wearers, however, is estimated by French police as numbering between 1,400 and 2,000.

Late in the afternoon, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an effort to mollify feelings among followers of the Koran, visited Muslim graves at a World War l cemetery, recently desecrated, arguing that Muslims should not be "stigmatized." In the Muslim discourse in France, many argue a burqa law does stigmatize and indirectly target them.

After visiting Notre Dame Laurent military cemetery in northern France, Sarkozy noted that “Islam is today the religion of many French people…France can’t allow French Muslims to be stigmatized.”

The new debate is quite divisive here. Unlike the recent Swiss vote to ban minarets at mosques, an initiative mostly driven by conservatives, opponents of the burqa in France span the far right and the far left of the political spectrum, sparking fights on both sides. The co-chair of the commission, Andre Gerin, is a member of the French assembly from the communist party.

In the first such use of the term, and an implicit acknowledgement of the problem, the report calls for “a parliamentary work on Islamophobia," the popular phrase used to describe rising anti-Muslim feeling in Europe. It also proposes a national school of Islam studies.

“The burqa plays out as something more spectacular than the minaret as a political symbol,” says Pap Ndiaye, of the School for Adanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. “It hides the face. It seems alien. There’s something a bit appalling about it, and it relates specifically to what is seen as a dangerous part of the world and to an extreme variant of Islam. Using the burqa is a very smart political strategy.”

"There are around [Sarkozy] people who dream to use these issues for electoral benefits," charged François Bayrou, a MoDem party leader and moderate who ran for president in 2007. The far-right National Party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen differed with much of the mainstream right, saying that, "Passing a law doesn't seem necessary to me. Police regulations are enough."

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