French constitution experts approve burqa ban
By Honor Mahony
A public ban on the Burqa, the Islamic full-face veil, will go into place early next year in France after constitutional experts on Thursday (8 October) approved the move.
The Conseil Constitutionnel, the guardian of the country's constitution, ruled that the law banning the wearing of the face-covering veil in public places passed by both chambers of the French parliament does not impinge on civil liberties.
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The council had widely been expected to overturn the law. However, it passed it almost in its entirety, stipulating only that the law should not apply to public places of worship, where it may violate religious freedom.
"The ban on covering the face in public places cannot constrain the practice of religious freedom in places of worship that are open to the public," the council said in its judgement, noting that it "conforms" with the constitution.
Expected to come into force about a half a year from now, the law provides for a six-month period to explain to a women wearing such a veil that they face a fine or arrest. If they continue to wear it, they will be fined €150 or must take a course in citizenship.
Anyone forcing a woman to wear the veil could be fined €30,000 and one year in jail.
The text of the law does not make explicit reference to Islam or the Islamic veil but was widely promoted by French politicians, including president Nicolas Sarkozy, as a way of protecting women's rights.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon in a statement called it "an important decision to affirm the values of the republic with respect for freedom of conscience and religion."
Critics of the law, however, say that the French government is creating a problem where none exists. Only around 2000 of the country's Muslim women wear a full veil out of a total population up to 2 million Muslim women.
The judgement comes at a sensitive for France. It has been widely criticised for its policy of expelling Roma after publicly linking immigration and crime. In addition, the country is at the centre of recent warnings by the US and the UK on the risk of a terrorist attack by Islamist groups in the run-up to Christmas. The law has been criticised on Islamic fundamentalist websites.
France may not be the only country to take this route however. Belgium's lower house of parliament approved a ban on the burqa in April, while the new governing coalition in the Netherlands will attempt the same move in return for the support of far-right politician Geert Wilders for the minority government.
Meanwhile, MPs from the anti-immigration Northern League, part of Italy's ruling right-wing coalition, Thursday proposed a bill suggesting that burqas be banned in Italy as well.