This timeline describes the recent legislation and announcements on the headscarf/hijab/burqa/niqab in France since 2004.
A 32-member multiparty panel led by Andre Gerin presented a panoply of recommendations aimed at dissuading Muslim women from wearing full-face covering headscarves. Another recommendation: denying resident cards and citizenship to women who wear all-encompassing veils.
The panel was bitterly divided over recommending a ban on face-covering veils on the street, and that was not among the 15 recommendations retained after a vote. President Nicolas Sarkozy put the issue before the French in June when he told a joint gathering of parliament that face-covering veils “are not welcome” in France.
Only several thousand women in France are thought to wear burqa-style garments, usually pinning a “niqab” across their faces to go with their long, dark robes. Such veils are widely seen as a gateway to extremism and an attack on gender equality and secularism, a basic value of modern-day France.
“The all-enveloping veil represents, in an extraordinary way, everything that France instinctively rejects. This is the symbol of the enslavement of women and the banner … of extremist fundamentalism,” said Bernard Accoyer, president of the National Assembly, the lower house, after being presented with the report.
Despite the acrimony, the recommendation to ban the veils in public sector facilities could be in place “before the end of the year,” conservative lawmaker Eric Raoult, the panel’s No. 2, told The Associated Press. “We need maybe six months or a little more to explain what we want,” he told The AP, adding that “by the end of 2010” there could be such an interdiction.
Hours after the report was presented, President Sarkozy visited a Muslim cemetery in northern France that has been desecrated twice. Secularism, he said in a speech honoring Muslims who fought and died for France, “is not the negation of religion.” But it is “an essential component of our identity.”
The president of the parliamentary panel, Andre Gerin, has stressed that the goal of any ban is not to stigmatize women with face-covering veils but to rout out people he calls “gurus” who indoctrinate and force even young girls to cover themselves.
The recommendations show attention, too, to public sector employees dealing with women in full veil who refuse to remove it. In particular, there have been reports of confrontations in hospital settings in which a husband refuses to allow his wife to be treated by a male doctor. Also among the 15 recommendations that passed a panel vote is one calling for special training by state employees to manage such confrontations and another to “systematically signal” when minors are seen wearing full-body veils.
Neither the parliament nor the government is obliged to act on the panel’s recommendations. No action is likely before March regional elections.
A report drawn up by French MPs calls for a ban on Afghan-style burqas and other garments that cover a woman’s face. The proposal has strong public support. According to an opinion poll by Ipsos for the magazine Le Point, 57 percent of voters favor a ban while 37 percent are opposed.
The recommendations of a parliamentary commission, to be published next week, are expected to include a bar on wearing full veils on public transport and in schools, hospitals and public-sector offices including post offices. The commission is thought likely to call for a total ban after further consultation.
President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a debate on veils last June, telling a special sitting of both houses of parliament that they were “not welcome” in France. He said last week the full veil was “contrary to our values and to the ideals we have of women’s dignity”.
André Gerin, the Communist MP who heads the commission, predicted the ban would be “absolute”. He has denounced what he called “French-style Talibans”. “The veil is only the visible part of the iceberg,” he said.
Opponents of a ban argue it would stigmatize Muslims. “France would be the only country in the world that sends its policemen … to stop in the street young women who are victims more than they are guilty,” wrote Laurent Joffrin, editor of the left-wing newspaper Libération. Police officers in some areas with large Muslim communities have warned that stopping women wearing veils would provoke riots.
A prominent French group of imams is backing a possible ban on the burqa. “We support any law that bans the wearing of a face veil in France,” said Hassan Chalghoumi, Chairman of the Conference of French Imams. The imam group, launched last year, says it fully supports a legal ban, basing their stance on the opinion of the majority of Muslim scholars who agree that a woman is not obliged to cover her entire face. Chalghoumi says face-veils are now being exploited as weapons “to tarnish” Muslim minorities in France and the West in general.
“Amid the silence of most of the Muslim organizations in France, we took such decision to end defaming campaigns against Islam and Muslims,” said the Tunisian-born Drancy imam.
The group’s position, however, drew immediate rebuke from prominent Muslim leaders in the European country. Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the official French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM), rejects any legal ban as a violation for Muslims’ religious freedom rights. “Such a call would only help Islamophobia rather than suppress it,” agrees Fouad Alaoui, President of the French Union of Islamic Organizations (l’UOIF). The l’UOIF has voiced strong opposition to a face-veil ban bill and attended three sessions of the parliamentary commission discussing the ban.
In this interview published in Le Monde with questions from the newspaper’s readership, Dounia Bouzar suggests that Islam in France is compatible with secularism and modernity, but that the media has erroneously reported that it’s evolutionarily behind. She claims that the reason why 57 percent of the French agree with the possibility of a law banning the burqa is because the equate the garment with radicalism, and answers a variety of other questions.
Amid heated debates, French lawmakers are wrestling with a compromise over a proposed ban on the wearing of face-veil by Muslim women. “We will talk about the idea of a law, about the need to take time to prepare it and to avoid stigmatization,” said MP André Gerin, head of the parliamentary commission on the issue.
Gerin, who spearheaded the anti-burqa campaign, said the next step will be a law imposing a ban on the burqa. Many lawmakers have voiced skepticism at the prospect of police forcing women to lift their veils in public, leaving the parliamentary committee mulling more applicable compromises. The initial proposal is to impose fines of up to €750 on people covering their faces in all public places.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has already introduced a draft bill with the proposal in the National Assembly. But Gerin recommended a more selective ban applying only to public buildings and schools. The conclusions of the special panel are going to be released in a report by the end of January.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon also waded into the fray saying he was in favor of a ban. He said the parliament should adopt a resolution outlining France’s rejection of the burqa and that several legislative texts and regulations should follow.
Lawmaker Jean-Francois Cope, head of President Sarkozy’s UMP party suggested he would submit a bill to have the veil banned not just from public buildings but also in the streets of France.
“We want a ban in public areas,” Cope said. However, the speaker of the lower chamber, Bernard Accoyer, said he felt his UMP party colleague’s plan risks “appearing premature” before the parliamentary panel issues its report.
Cope said after a meeting of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement that he planned to file two distinct texts in January, one of which would ensconce the ban in a larger bill forbidding people from covering their faces on security grounds. The other text would be a resolution regarding respect for women’s rights. A resolution approved by lawmakers does not carry the weight of law, but solemnly affirms a principle.
Cope suggested a fine could be levied against anyone breaking the ban. However, he also suggested a period of mediation lasting several months “with the women in question and their husbands … to explain” and discuss the issue.
Christophe Caresche, PS (Socialist Party) deputy of Paris, has positioned himself against a law banning headscarves in public places, seeing it as an arm which could accelerate “an already marginal phenomenon.”
While claiming that wearing the burqa and niqab “call into question women’s dignity in the public sphere,” a ban being pushed by UMP deputies “risks to play into the game we think we’re battling against.” He also noted that legally it seems doubtful that such a ban could pass alongside the current constitution.
André Geron’s commission on the topic is set to make its recommendations at the end of January 2010.
French ministers Eric Besson (minister of immigration), Brice Hortefeux (minister of the Interior) and Xavier Darcos (minister of work) were recently auditioned by the Parliamentary Mission on burqa and niqab use in the Republic. They did not share a common method of how to dispel the “radical and rare” phenomenon. According to Le Monde, they had strongly differing positions. Besson is for a law, Hortefeux claims it is possible legally, and Darcos is more restrained.
Key Words – Eric Besson, Brice Hortefeux, Xavier Darcos, Parliamentary Debate, Niqab, Burqa, France, André Geron
While French ministers like Eric Besson claim that a possible law against the burqa is a way to protect the dignity of women, others point to how it would remove practicing Muslim women’s dignity of choice. Denys de Bechillon points to how the notion of dignity is one of the most complicated to determine in contemporary legal matters. Moreover, legal scholars usually cannot determine whether it was forced upon her by her husband or her brother. Until now, there has been no legal text or position in France which claims that the face must be visible in the public sphere, except for identity cards or being stopped by police. It is unclear how the constitutional council would react should such a ban be put into place as no law like it has come before the courts.