President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party will push for a law banning the full-face Islamic veil in order to defend France from "extremists", the party's parliamentary leader said today. Jean-Francois Cope laid out his plans for new legislation in a newspaper article, which appeared just as three ministers were to testify before a parliamentary panel set up to consider whether to ban the full veil.
"The issue is not how many women wear the burqa," Mr Cope wrote in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro. "There are principles at stake: extremists are putting the republic to the test by promoting a practice that they know is contrary to the basic principles of our country," he said. The new legislation will be enacted after a period of consultation with Muslim communities in France "so that this measure is understood for what it is: a law of liberation and not a ban," he wrote.
Home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, France set up the special panel six months ago to consider whether a law should be enacted to bar Muslim women from wearing the full-face veil, known as a burqa or niqab. Mr Sarkozy has proclaimed the burqa "not welcome" in secular France but he has not waded into the debate on whether legislation should be enacted. A panel of 32 lawmakers from across the spectrum report next month after hearing the views of Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, Immigration Minister Eric Besson and Education Minister Xavier Darcos later today.
Reports by French intelligence services have said that fewer than 400 women wear the full veil in France, but a separate study by the interior ministry put the figure at a few thousand. "Several hundred" women cover themselves fully when they leave their homes, Mr Cope said, adding that no one in France, not even Muslim leaders, believed that this should be allowed to continue. The majority leader invoked security reasons for the ban that would apply to public offices as well as shops and other public areas and said "hiding your face in public" was not a choice but a rejection of open society.
France has had a long-running debate on how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam without undermining the tradition of separating church and state, enshrined in a flagship 1905 law. In 2004, it passed a law banning headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools. * AFP