French report calls for burqa ban

French report calls for burqa ban  

AFP/File – A woman wearing a niqab -- the full Islamic veil -- walks through Lyon in eastern France. A French parliament …

PARIS (AFP) – A French parliament report called on Tuesday for a ban on the full Islamic veil in many public places, saying Muslim women who wear the burqa were mounting an "unacceptable" challenge to French values.

After six months of hearings, a panel of 32 lawmakers said the face-covering veil should be outlawed in schools, hospitals, public transport and government offices, the broadest move yet to restrict Muslim dress in France.

"The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable," the report said. "We must condemn this excess."

The commission however stopped short of proposing broader legislation to outlaw the burqa in the streets, shopping centres and other public venues after raising doubts about its constitutionality.

Tensions flared at the last minute when a group of right-wing MPs pushed unsuccessfully for a tougher measure to ban the all-encompassing veil in all public venues.

In the end, the commission called on parliament to adopt a resolution stating that the burqa was "contrary to the values of the republic" and proclaiming that "all of France is saying 'no' to the full veil."

The National Assembly resolution paves the way for legislation making it illegal for anyone to appear with their face covered at state-run institutions and in public transport for reasons of security.

"The wearing of the full veil is the tip of the iceberg," said communist lawmaker Andre Gerin, the chair of the commission, who presented the report.

"There are scandalous practices hidden behind this veil," said Gerin who vowed to fight the "gurus" he said were seeking to export a radical brand of fundamentalism to France.

Women who turn up at the post office or any government building wearing the full veil should be denied services such as a work visa, residency papers or French citizenship, the report recommended.

Critics of the "burqa debate" have warned the measures risk stigmatising France's six million Muslims who are already bristling at the government's launching of a national identity debate that has exposed fears about Islam.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has stated that the burqa is "not welcome" in France, on Tuesday sought to ease tensions by visiting a World War I cemetery in northern France to pay tribute to the sacrifices of north African soldiers.

"Islam is today the religion of choice for many French citizens," Sarkozy said, pledging that France "will not allow French Muslim citizens to be stigmatised."

The opposition Socialists refused to endorse the final report to protest the government's identity debate, and one of France's best-loved comics, Jamel Debbouze, who is of Moroccan descent, called the initiative "racist".

"Really we are talking about a marginal phenomenon," said Debbouze on French radio. "The people who are engaged in this (proposed ban) are racist."

Despite a large Muslim presence, the sight of fully-veiled women is not common in France. Only 1,900 women wear the burqa, according to the interior ministry. Half of them live in the Paris region and 90 percent are under 40.

Home to Europe's biggest Muslim minority, France has come under scrutiny at a time of particular unease over Islam, three months after Swiss voters approved a ban on minarets.

The leader of Sarkozy's right-wing party in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, has already drafted a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their faces in public.

In 2004 France passed a law banning headscarves and any other "conspicuous" religious symbols in state schools after a long-running debate on how far it was willing to go to accommodate Islam in its strictly secular society.

French support for a law banning the full veil is strong: a poll last week showed 57 percent are in favour.

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