PARIS – French authorities have denied citizenship to a man who forced his French wife to wear a face-covering veil, saying he had rejected national values of secularism and gender equality.
The government has been speaking out strongly against head-to-toe veils, and is moving toward banning them in public after a long public debate over French national identity in the age of globalization.
Critics call the face-covering veil a gateway to extremism, but the move to ban it has drawn fierce criticism from some of France's five million Muslims, who say such restrictions are based in fear and intolerance of Islam.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has called the veils degrading to women and unwelcome in France. Sarkozy, a law-and-order conservative whose relations with the Muslim community have often been fraught, has been a vocal proponent of an all-out ban on the burqa, niqab and other face-covering Muslim veils.
Opposition leftist parties have slammed Sarkozy's focus on the veil, which is believed to be worn by only several thousand women in France. Critics contend the issue is a political ploy to divert attention from more substantial issues and aimed at far-right voters ahead of regional elections next month.
Little is known about the man denied citizenship or his wife, as neither have been identified. News reports said the man is a Moroccan citizen and a member of the hard-line Tabligh missionary movement.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson said Wednesday the decision was rooted in French law, which permits authorities to reject applicants who fail to respect national values.Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who has the final say, has pledged to approve Besson's order.
Besson's office said the man's application was rejected because officials had determined that he had deprived his wife of the freedom to go about with her face uncovered.
"It was nearly a caricature because the person said: 'my wife will never be able to go out without the full veil; I don't believe in gender equality; women have inferior status; I will not respect the principles of the secular society,'" he told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
Besson stressed that the decision does not mean the man will be deported, and he will be allowed to remain in France on his current long-term visa.
Muslim leaders reacted cautiously to Besson's announcement, with some condemning the man's behavior.
"I don't believe it's good practice to aspire to French naturalization when you reject our fundamental values, the core principles of the republic, notably the secular nature of the country," Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the vice president of the CFCM, an umbrella organization of French Muslim groups, told Associated Press Television News.
If Fillon signs the decree, it would not be France's first burqa-related denial of citizenship. In 2008, authorities rejected the application of a fully veiled Moroccan woman on the grounds that she was not sufficiently assimilated into French society.
She appealed, but France's highest body, the Council of State, upheld the decision. That same body is now studying the possible legal framework for a ban on wearing burqas and other face-covering garments on the street.
In 2004, France banned the Muslim headscarf and other "ostentatious" religious signs in primary and secondary schools.
Christophe Bertossi, an academic who specializes in citizenship issues at France's IFRI think-tank, said he assumed the man in the new case would also appeal and if he does, it's unclear what Council of State might decide.
"We're entering potentially dangerous territory," he said. "We are getting into a mindset in which the state determines and provides the criteria upon which people must believe what they believe and wear the clothes they must wear."