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French parliament debates burqa ban

By the CNN Wire Staff
The French bill could mean a possible prison sentence for people who force women to wear full face veils.
The French bill could mean a possible prison sentence for people who force women to wear full face veils.
  • French law would bar women from covering faces with Islamic veils
  • Lower house of parliament expected to vote next week; Senate approval also required to become law
  • Government says veils harm human dignity and equality between sexes
  • Ban could violate human rights law, Council of State and Amnesty International warn
  • Islam
  • France

Paris, France (CNN) -- The French parliament begins debate Tuesday on a bill that would ban women from wearing Islamic veils, such as the burqa, that fully cover the face and body.

A vote is not expected until next week, after which the measure, if passed, will go to the French Senate for a vote likely in the fall.

The French Council of Ministers approved the measure in May, saying veils that cover the face "cannot be tolerated in any public place." Their approval sent the bill to parliament.

The parliamentary debate starting Tuesday is the latest step in France's efforts to ban the burqa, niqab and other Muslim garments that cover a woman's face.

A panel of French lawmakers recommended a ban last year, and lawmakers unanimously passed a non-binding resolution in May calling the full-face veil contrary to the laws of the nation.

"Given the damage it produces on those rules which allow the life in community, ensure the dignity of the person and equality between sexes, this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place," the French government said when it sent the measure to parliament in May.

The bill envisions a fine of 150 euros ($190) and/or a citizenship course as punishment for wearing a face-covering veil.

Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa would be punishable by a year in prison or a 15,000-euro ($19,000) fine, the government said, calling it "a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil."

The measure would take effect six months after passage, giving authorities time to try to persuade women who veil themselves voluntarily to stop.

The French Council of State has warned that the ban could be incompatible with international human rights law and the country's own constitution. The council advises on laws, but the government is not required to follow its recommendations.

Amnesty International urged French lawmakers in May not to approve the ban.

"A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab in public as an expression of their identity or beliefs," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's expert on discrimination in Europe.

Belgium's lower house of parliament passed a similar ban in April.

If that bill is approved by the upper house and signed into law, it will be the first national ban in Europe on the burqa, a full-body cover that includes a mesh over the face, and the niqab, a full-face veil that leaves an opening only for the eyes.

The hijab, which tightly covers the hair and neck but not the face, and the chador, which covers the body but not the face, apparently would not be banned by either law.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates that France has about 3.5 million Muslims, or about 6 percent of the population.

France does not keep its own statistics on religious affiliation of the population, in keeping with its laws requiring the state to be strictly secular.