France should denounce, ban Muslim face veils: panel

Paris– France’s National Assembly should pass a resolution denouncing full Muslim face veils and then vote the strictest law possible to ban women from wearing them, a parliamentary commission proposed on Tuesday.

Presenting conclusions after six months of hearings, the panel also suggested barring foreign women from obtaining French visas or citizenship if they insisted on veiling their faces.

But it could not agree whether to opt for an absolute ban on the veils, called burqas or niqabs, or one restricted to public buildings because some members thought a total ban would be unconstitutional.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who last year declared full veils unwelcome in France, said on a visit to a cemetery for Muslim soldiers that he would not allow Muslims to be stigmatized by any measures taken to ensure equality between men and women.

"The full veil represents in an extraordinary way everything that France spontaneously rejects," National Assembly President Bernard Accoyer said as the commission delivered its report.

"It’s a symbol of the subjugation of women and the banner of extremist fundamentalism."

While not defending the all-enclosing veils, leaders of the five-million-strong Muslim minority say a legal ban would be excessive since only 1,900 women are said to wear them.

Jamel Debbouze, a highly popular Parisian-born comedian of Moroccan background, condemned the plan as xenophobic. "People who go down that path are racists," he told French radio.

The veil issue has become linked with another controversial debate about national identity that the government launched only months before regional elections in March. "This debate is sterile and dangerous electioneering," Debbouze said.

Supporters of a ban say civil servants need a law to allow them to turn away fully veiled women who cannot be identified when they seek municipal services such as medical care, child support or public transport.

Andre Gerin, a communist deputy from Lyon who headed the commission, said a total ban would also help combat what he called "gurus of fundamentalism" who he said were spreading radical Islamism and forcing women to wear full veils.

He said France needed "an Islam compatible with the Republic" and its values of secularism and sexual equality.

Eric Raoult, a conservative deputy and vice-chairman of the commission, said a resolution denouncing full veils should find wide support in parliament but a law banning them needed to be carefully drafted to ensure it is not overturned.

"There wouldn’t be anything worse than proclaiming something and seeing it annulled by the Constitutional Council," he said.

The commission report proposed outlawing full face veils, taking measures to combat violence against women and declaring veiling a radical religious practice that is contrary to French values and grounds to reject requests for citizenship.

The sensitivity of the issue was underlined when the mayor of the Paris suburb of Drancy told France 3 television a local imam who had come out in favor of the ban was threatened by hardline Islamist protesters on Monday evening.

Jean-Christophe Lagarde said members of "Islamist splinter groups" entered the mosque of Hassen Chalghoumi, an imam who has previously received death threats for urging dialogue with Jews, to "try to intimidate the imam as well as worshippers there."

Accoyer said the parliament would not have time to work out a solid law banning face veils and pass it before the regional elections in March. Opinion polls say a majority of French voters want a ban on full face veils.

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