France Moving Towards Full Ban on Burqa and Niqab

ABC's Christophe Schpoliansky reports from Paris:

After Belgium, France is moving towards a full ban from public places of the burqa, the full head-to-toe Islamic veil, or the niqab, which only leaves the eyes visible. Despite the recent warning by France’s highest administrative body, the Council of State, that a total ban in public places would be unconstitutional, except in some cases, French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided today during the weekly cabinet meeting that France would go ahead with the full ban. Citing the dignity of women and the respect of the values of the French Republic, Sarkozy asked his government to work on a bill that is expected to be introduced in the French parliament by July. Those who have been calling for the ban say the burqa is a mark of gender inequality, against 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.

In January, after examining the ban issue for 6 months, a French parliamentary commission made 15 recommendations. It stopped short of calling for a full ban. Instead, the committee’s near 200-page report proposed a ban in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transport. It also recommended that anyone showing visible signs of “radical religious practice” should be refused residence cards and citizenship.

Secular laws in France already forbid the use of full body garments for public servants, in schools or in businesses where they would hamper work.

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. This idea of a ban is backed by many in France, including French Prime Minister François Fillon.

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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