French MPs call for ban on veils for Muslim women

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An all-party committee of French parliamentarians has recommended that Muslim women should be banned from wearing face veils when using public services such as hospitals and public transport. Other recommendations include refusing citizenship or residence permits to those who visibly show "radical religious practice". The report does not call for a complete ban, but it would place a number of restrictions on daily life for those who wished to carry on wearing a veil.

A file photograph of a woman wearing a niqab, a type of Islamic face veil.
Image: Steve Evans.

According to the committee's report, "The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable." It added, "We must condemn this excess". It criticised the practice as being contrary to French principles of secularism and equality, and called for the French Parliament to adopt resolutions against the face veil. Bernard Accoyer, the President of the National Assembly, said that the veil was a "symbol of the repression of women", and of "extremist fundamentalism".

The report, which is nearly 200 pages long, has been produced after the committee took evidence for five months from religious leaders and human rights experts. The committee was told by Muslims that a law would increase feelings of alienation, even though the veil was not worn by the majority of Muslims. Earlier this year, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that veils were "not welcome" in France. Although he stopped short of calling for a ban, this would be the preferred option of about two-thirds of the French people, according to opinion polls.

Some members of the committee favoured going further, but agreement could not be reached on a complete ban "at this stage", it was said. One member called this "a missed opportunity". An ban on covering the face when accessing public services would affect those using hospitals, schools, universities, post offices, and banks. Legislation in 2004 banned the wearing of head scarves and other religious symbols in French public schools.

French government sources say that about 1,900 women in France wear an Islamic veil (mainly the niqab, which does not cover the eyes), out of about 5 million Muslims in the country – the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. Fears have been expressed that a ban would make France a terrorist target, even if it could be implemented. The Socialist opposition party, on the whole, is against a ban on principle, and has concerns that such a move would unfairly single out Muslim women.