Saturday, November 14, 2009

France will oppose but not ban burqas

By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

PARIS (Reuters) - France will issue recommendations against full face veils but not pass a law barring Muslim women from wearing them, a leading backer of a legal ban said on Friday.

Andre Gerin, chairman of a parliamentary inquiry into use of full face veils in France, reluctantly ruled out a ban one day after President Nicolas Sarkozy repeated his conviction that "France is a country that has no place for the burqa."

France banned Muslim headscarves in state schools in 2004 following a similar inquiry and looked set to bring in an outright ban on veils coverings the whole face, such as burqas or niqabs, when it launched the panel last June at the request of Gerin, a Communist deputy from Lyon.

But at its weekly hearings, legal experts, local officials, Muslim leaders and even some militant secularists have told the deputies on the panel that a ban could be anti-constitutional, counterproductive and impossible to enforce.

Gerin, who denounces the head-to-toe veils as "walking coffins," told Europe 1 radio: "We'll end up with recommendations ... not a law in itself against the burqa, maybe a symbolic law, a law of liberation (of women)."

Backing off from a complete ban, he said the panel might propose "radical measures" to ban full face veils in municipal hospitals and other public institutions, but gave no details.

France, whose five million Muslims make up Europe's largest Islamic minority, has been criticized in the Muslim world for considering a burqa ban. French Islamic community leaders have warned against passing a law that would stigmatize Muslims.

Skepticism about a ban grew after a police report said only 367 women in France wore such veils, which are common in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia but not in the North African countries where most Muslim immigrants to France came from.

Another estimate spoke of about a thousand such veils.

The veil inquiry coincides with Sarkozy's plan for a public debate about immigration and national identity due to culminate in a conference just before regional elections next March.

The opposition Socialist Party accuses him of stirring up the issue to poach anti-immigration voters from the far-right. Winning those voters away from the National Front party was a key to Sarkozy's election as president in 2007.

Gerin said the panel was studying a possible ban on all face coverings in public, an approach experts also cast doubt on.

"We can't impose a state of permanent control on citizens," legal expert Remi Schwartz told the panel. "That would mean everyone should be identifiable at all times, which would make public space into a vast zone of video surveillance."

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