Curbs on wearing the full Muslim veil came a step closer in France Tuesday with a report that will call for a ban on the dress in post offices, universities, hospitals and state-owned premises, as well as public transport.
On Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to endorse the proposals, to be made by an all-party commission. Last week he called the niqab, the form of veil worn in France, “contrary to our values and to the ideals we have of women’s dignity.” Parliament is expected to act on the proposals in the spring.
If they become law women with covered faces would be refused public services such as transport, university classes and benefits.
The popular campaign for an “anti-burqa law,” as it is known, is helping Sarkozy after a series of political blunders in recent months that have robbed him of his aura of invincibility. In his appearance last night he sought to restore confidence in his administration. His format — questions from 11 hand-picked members of the public — was attacked by the opposition as “Berlusconi-style” propaganda.
Two out of three people want the veil, worn by a small but growing number of young fundamentalists, to be outlawed anywhere in public, according to opinion polls. Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and a section of the left-wing opposition want that, too, but the president called for narrower measures and more thought. France should not stigmatise Muslims, he said.
After five months of testimony from religious leaders, human rights activists and others, the parliamentary commission closed its work in disarray. A limited legal ban and a parliamentary resolution condemning the niqab was the maximum consensus that could be reached. Even that is likely to draw criticism from outside France.
The Socialist opposition, divided among themselves over the veil, are to abstain from a vote on the report. They say that it has been polluted by a “great national debate” on French identity that Sarkozy has staged over the past three months.
Some figures in Sarkozy’s party are also uneasy over the way that the veil question has been blended with the national debate, which has focused on the integration of the country’s five million Muslims. Sarkozy has contributed to the distaste, calling on French Muslims to be discreet about practicing their religion. The critics see this as a crude play for votes before the regional council elections in March.
Muslim leaders told the commission that the full veil was not supported by most Muslims but that a law would add to the feeling of rejection.