Bastille Day 2010

On the eve of Bastille Day and the 220th anniversary of la Fête de la Fédération, the 557-seat French National Assembly adopted a bill prohibiting the concealment of the face in public. The bill does not single out Muslims, but it is seen as a way to combat religious extremism. The proposal would fine women the equivalent of $185 for wearing the veil in public or make them do community service. Those who oppress women and make them wear the veil could face a fine of up to $38,000 or up to one year in prison – double if the woman is a minor.

While the vote was nearly unanimous (335 to 1), the proposal has opposition as 241 members abstained, mostly the opposition Socialist, Communist and Green parties, who oppose women wearing the full veil, but do not see legislation as a solution. Last year, some members of parliament called for a commission to investigate whether the veil undermined French values. The bill moves to the French Senate where it is expected to have no opposition when it hold its vote in September. Once signed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the ban would take effect next spring. Last year, Sarkozy said that the burka was “not welcome” in France and that it was “not a sign of religion but a sign of subservience.” The comments provoked a public reaction that showed widespread support for a ban on both the burka, an enveloping outer garment, and the niqab, or face covering. Muslim groups, however, complained that such a ban would stigmatize all members of their religion.

The bill, available at the French National Assembly website, reads in part:

No person may, in public, wear clothing designed to conceal his face.
Public space is made up of public roads and places open to the public or engaged in a public service.
The prohibition does not apply if the conduct is required or permitted by law or regulation, whether it is justified by reasons of health or professional reasons , or if it is part of sporting activities , festivals or artistic or traditional.
The failure of anyone to impose one or more other persons to conceal their faces by threat, violence, coercion, abuse of authority or abuse of power, because of their sex, is punishable by imprisonment for one year and €30,000 fine. Where the act is committed against a minor, the penalty is increased to two years imprisonment and a €60,000 fine.

The ban has strong public support but critics, according to an Al Arabiya report, say the law exploits a non-problem (only about 1,900 women among France’s five to six million Muslims wear a veil) in a bid to pander to anti-immigration voters and to distract attention from France’s economic woes. With questions on the ban’s constitutionality, the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party has agreed to send the eventual final version of the legislation to the Constitutional Council watchdog. A further challenge could occur from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Amnesty International has said the law “violates rights to freedom of expression and religion.”

The French National Assembly vote could set a precedent for other European countries. Earlier this year, the Belgian lower house voted 136-0 to approve a bill that would ban the burqa and other full face veils in public. Britain and Spain are considering similar legislation as is the European Parliament. See the report in Jurist for other jurisdictions currently debating legislation to ban the burqa. Support for such a ban is far higher in Europe than in the US, where 28% of the public would approve it, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, compared with 82% in France and 62% in Britain. A Europe-wide trend reacting to the growing Islamic presence resulted in the Swiss electorate voting to outlaw minarets last year.