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French president calls for ban on veils

April 29th, 2010

A veiled French woman in Nantes, a town in western France, on April 23. (AP)

Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, released a statement last Wednesday saying he will propose legislation banning the wearing of full veils in public by Muslim women, saying the “veil hurts the dignity of women and is unacceptable in French society.” He went on to say, via government spokesman Luc Chatel, that they “do not pose a problem in a religious sense.”

Sarkozy specifically singled out the wearing of the niqab, a type of veil that covers the face entirely except for a slit through which the eyes can be seen.

According to the BBC, Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) said, “[The bill is] a means to defend France against ‘extremists.’”

The Council of State, a body of the French government that is required to provide the executive branch with legal advice before important legislative measures, said in March that “a general and absolute ban on the full veil as such can have no incontestable judicial basis.” Despite the questionable constitutionality of the potential bill, it is a very popular proposal in France.

The Council said that making it a case of public security would have a better chance of passing, instead of a matter of “the dignity of women.” They went on to say that it would be a violation of the French constitution as well as the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Francois Fillon, the prime minister, backed Sarkozy, saying, “We’re ready to take the legal risks because we think the game is worth the candle.”

The proposed bill is an advancement on an earlier proposal from the National Assembly, the lower house of France’s bicameral legislature, that would ban the full veils in public places only owned by the state and places that required high security. France had already banned head scarves in public schools, but at the same time banned all signs of religious affiliation in order to not single out just Muslims.

France is home to the largest population of Muslims in Europe, but it is estimated that fewer than 2,000 women wear the full veil in France.

The full veil is worn mostly by women who belong to a branch of Islam called Salafi, a branch that has a more strict interpretation of scripture than others. The ban is seen as a severe restriction on the rights of women by leftist politicians, whereas most of the women argue that the ban is an invasion of personal liberties and freedom of religion.