France Pushes Ahead With Controversial Law To Ban The Veil in Public

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has ordered the French government to draw up legislation that will allow for the total ban on the Islamic veil or niqab. This includes not just state or government offices or buildings, but in fact it will make it illegal anywhere in public. The government of Sarkozy is pressing ahead with writing and planning to enact this law despite many legal analysts in France and in Europe stating that it could eventually prove to be unconstitutional.

Despite having Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, France was one of the first to enact laws outlawing the veil in government buildings and schools in 2004. The move comes after a French driver was stopped last week for driving while veiled in the French city of Nantes. She was penalized a 22-Euro or $29 fine as police cited her for posing a “safety risk” while driving.

French government spokesman Luc Chatel said that the proposals for a full ban on the niqab and burqa would be submitted to parliament in the coming months and could theoretically be made into law by this summer.

The plans to ban the veil, he stated, were “in line with the wishes of the head of state”, who has made clear on numerous occasions his opposition to face covering garments prevalent in the Muslim culture. “The ban on the full veil must be total in all public places because women’s dignity cannot be watered down,” said Chatel, as he kept to the official view that a ban would be in keeping with “republican French values of gender equality and secularism.”

He added: “Everything must be done to ensure that no one feels stigmatized because of their faith or religious beliefs. The president and the prime minister have asked all members of the government to commit to this point.” Clearly, these are contradicting actions to many Muslims across France and Europe as they feel signaled out for the differential treatment. There is no attempt to include other religious articles of clothing from being banned such as the turban for Sikhs or the habits for the Catholic nuns.

Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and other groups within France have been lobbying for well over a year in support of the ban. The French Council of State, a body made up of legal experts and is a part of the executive branch in charge of giving the government legal advice, has said that the burqa ban may be unconstitutional under French and European law as it violates the protections for religion. In fact, the French Republic is based on the principle of “laicite” or freedom of conscience preserved in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Undeterred, French president Sarkozy is pressing ahead with his attempts to push the law through in the next few weeks.

The Muslim veil has become the symbol of a cultural clash between a secular France concerned with preserving its Christian and Western identity, with the rise of a Muslim population that is estimated at roughly 5 million people, making 1 in 10 Frenchmen, a Muslim. Although the presence of Muslims in France started in the 8th century when Muslims had conquered Spain and pushed into France. But Islam then totally disappeared from France until the 20th century. After World War II, many people emigrated from former colonies in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere, putting Islam in a distant second place as next most practiced religion after Catholicism which is roughly 85% of the population. Of France’s estimated 5 million Muslims, only as little as perhaps 3,000 women wear the veil, according to French government estimates.

The ban on the veil is not constitutional as it conflicts with the country’s freedom of religion and conscience that are ingrained in the French constitution and indeed psyche. Furthermore, to explicitly single out the Muslim religious articles of clothing, the law is blatantly discriminatory and certainly therefore unconstitutional. There is a big concern in France and indeed across Europe over the Arabization or Talibanization of Europe.

Many people in France see the Muslim religion as being repressive towards women and the veil is the symbol of that oppression. It may even seem commendable that France is standing up for the rights of oppressed Muslim women. However, the banning of the veil will certainly be seen by the Muslims of France as a direct assault on their personal and religious rights of expression. In a country where the majority of Muslim women do not wear the veil and have successfully assimilated into French society, the ban will actually serve to further divide and alienate the Muslim population already feeling stigmatized in France and across Europe since 9-11.

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