PARIS — As France’s parliament debates whether to ban burqa-like Muslim veils, one lawmaker compares them to muzzles, or “walking coffins.” Another proclaims that women who wear them must be liberated, even against their will.
Amid little resistance, France’s lower house of parliament will likely approve a ban on face-covering veils Tuesday, and the Senate will probably follow suit in September.
Yet a big question mark still hangs over the bill: Does it violate France’s constitution? Law scholars say the ban could be shot down by France’s constitutional watchdog, or down the road, by the European Court of Human Rights.
That could dampen efforts in other countries toward banning such veils. It would also be a humiliation for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government, which has devoted much attention to a bill that would affect only an estimated 1,900 women in France.
The main body representing French Muslims says face-covering veils are not required by Islam and not suitable in France, but it worries that the law will stigmatize Muslims in general.
Polls show voters overwhelmingly support a ban. In parliament, criticism was mostly timid, and relatively few dissenters spoke out about civil liberties or fears of fanning anti-Islam sentiment in a country with an estimated 5 million-strong Muslim population – Europe’s largest.
The niqab and burqa are widely seen in France as a gateway to extremism and an attack on women’s rights and secularism, a central value of modern-day France. Critics, meanwhile, say the ban is a cynical ploy to attract far-right voters.
The ban is also a symbol of the government putting its foot down to insist that integration is the only path for minorities. France has had difficulty integrating generations of immigrants and their children, as witnessed by weeks of rioting by youths, many of them minorities, in troubled neighborhoods in 2005.
Sarkozy’s government has struggled – and failed, some legal observers say – to come up with a strong legal basis for a ban.