The French government reacted favourably to a draft law introduced by the UMP, president Nicolas Sarkozy's party, that aims to ban the use of the full veil in France. Despite opinions to the contrary by a parliamentary commission and the Council of State, the French head of state is going ahead, emphasising that his purpose is to defend national values and protect women's dignity. Islamic opinion has reacted strongly, criticising the measure and defining it as the "stigmatisation" of the Muslim religion.
The bill has been debated in the Council of Ministers and, compared to the previous draft, some changes have been made to the text. Women wearing the burqa and niqab will not only be fined 150 euros, but could also be made to attend a "stage de citoyenneté", or citizenship course, to improve their knowledge of French society. The bill, drawn up by Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, has seven articles, and includes a year of imprisonment and a fine of fifteen thousand euros for men who oblige their wives to cover themselves with the full veil in public. "A public space - says the law - is defined as the street and anywhere open to the public or intended for a public service". There will, however, be some exceptions to the ban. It will not be applicable when the face has to be covered by law, such as in the wearing of a motorbike helmet or for health reasons. The face can also be hidden in carnivals, and for the purposes of guaranteeing the safety of certain people. Despite having been defined as "unconstitutional" by the Council of State, the ban, which will have a purely symbolic and political value, will be debated in parliament in July. The final vote will be in September.
Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of prime minister Fillon and president Sarkozy, the proposed law continues to be at the heart of French debate. Police have strongly criticised the measure, saying how difficult it will be for their personnel and gendarmes to "unveil" women, especially in the vicinity of mosques. Another problem for the police will be dealing with tourists from Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. The Interior Minister's answers to these questions have been evasive, asking for the cooperation of Islamic associations in France. "This law - explains philosopher Jean-Robert Armogathe, lecturer at the Sorbonne in Paris - has a purely symbolic and political significance. It talks about identity and national values, but the measure is actually a move by Sarkozy to further divide the opposition. In the parliamentary commission, the Left and Right reached a compromise. They decided against the use of the full veil, but in a way that had no legal value. The president then decided to proceed with the legislation to create further confusion on the socialist front, which has no leader or charismatic figure. The president knows full well that nobody can defend the burqa. His objective, between now and election year, 2012, is to split the opposition. Sarkozy's approval rating is at a low and he has no hope of getting the vote of the Fronte National, which would sooner "go with the Left" than ally with the UMP. Furthermore, according to professor Armogathe, a total ban would be an expression of the paradox of freedom in our society. "The measure against the veil - explains the professor - makes me think back to what happened with the 'dwarf tossing' craze a few years ago, when dwarves were being thrown around like a ball. Without being obliged to, lots of dwarves wanted to do it. In the end it was decided to ban it with a law, because it was contrary to a person's dignity. Exactly like in the case of the full veil, a law was passed to defend people from themselves. This is a paradox. It's a case of justice denying somebody their own individual freedom".