France Continues Debate Over Burqas in Public

ABC's Christophe Schpoliansky reports from Paris:

France continues to debate on whether to ban from public places the burqa and its Arab equivalent, the niqab, the full head-to-toe Islamic veil. Opponents of the burqa view it as an open door to radical Islam, an attack on gender equality and other French values such as human rights, and a breach of the nation's secular foundation.

Unlike the Muslim headscarves, the full-body, face-covering robes are a rare sight on the streets of France, with 1,900 women wearing them, according to the French interior ministry. France is home to an estimated 4 to 6 million Muslims, the largest such population in western Europe.

Last week, Jean-François Copé, the head of the leading conservative UMP party at the French parliament and a front-runner for the presidential election of 2017, submitted a resolution stressing the importance of respecting the nation’s values. Copé also introduced a draft law on a ban on face-covering veils. The bill could be debated this spring. This move was criticized by the UMP party because it cut the ground from under the feet of the French parliamentary commission which has been studying for the past six months whether a law banning such garments from public places was needed. The commission, composed of politicians from both the left and the right camps, is to turn in its report by the end of the month. The head of the commission was quoted last week as saying he favored a burqa ban, but many lawmakers and activists have voiced skepticism saying a ban would be difficult to impose.

President Sarkozy launched the debate on the burqa in June 2009, telling a parliament session in Versailles that such dress "is not welcome" in France. Sarkozy has left open the idea of introducing legislation to ban the burqa. This idea of a ban is backed by many in France, including French Prime Minister François Fillon.

Yesterday, the head of President Sarkozy's UMP party took a strong stance and said he wanted a law to ensure that Muslim women who wear face-covering veils do not acquire French nationality.

In 2004, France passed a controversial law banning Muslim headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols in the classrooms of the French public schools and other public buildings.

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