France's justice minister went before parliament Tuesday to defend a hotly debated bill that would ban burqa-style Islamic veils in public, arguing that hiding your face from your neighbors is a violation of French values.
Michele Alliot-Marie's speech at the National Assembly marked the start of parliamentary debate on the bill. It is widely expected to become law, despite the concerns of many French Muslims, who fear it will stigmatize them. Many law scholars also argue it would violate the constitution.
The government has used various strategies to sell the proposal, casting it at times as a way to promote equality between the sexes, to protect oppressed women or to ensure security in public places.
Alliot-Marie argued that it has nothing to do with religion or security — she argued simply that life in the French Republic "is carried out with a bare face."
"It is a question of dignity, equality and transparency," she said in a speech that made scant mention of Muslim veils. Officials have taken pains to craft language that does not single out Muslims: While the proposed legislation is colloquially referred to as the "anti-burqa law," it is officially called "the bill to forbid covering one's face in public."
Ordinary Muslim headscarves are common in France, but face-covering veils are a rarity — the Interior Ministry says only 1,900 women in France wear them.
Yet the planned law would be a turning point for Islam in a country with a Muslim population of at least 5 million people, the largest in western Europe.
France is determined to protect the country's deeply rooted secular values, and the conservative government is encouraging a moderate, state-sanctioned Islam that respects the secular state. Last week Prime Minister Francois Fillon inaugurated a mosque in the Paris suburbs.
Lawmakers at the National Assembly are expected to vote on the bill July 13. It goes to the Senate in September.
The legislation would forbid face-covering Muslim veils such as the niqab or burqa in all public places in France, even in the street. It calls for euro150 ($185) fines or citizenship classes for women who run afoul of the law, and in some cases both.
Part of the bill is aimed at husbands and fathers who impose such veils on female family members. Anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil risks a year of prison and a euro30,000 fine — with both those penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.
France "does not accept attacks on human dignity," Alliot-Marie said. "It does not tolerate the abuse of vulnerable people."
France's opposition Socialists agree with much of the draft law, although they say a ban shouldn't be applicable everywhere — just in certain places, such as government buildings, hospitals and public transport.
"We're not going into this debate with a head-on attack," Jean-Marc Ayrault, who heads the Socialists in the French National Assembly, told Associated Press Television News.
The justice minister argued that the law must be applicable everywhere to be coherent — but she nonetheless presented a host of exceptions to the face-covering ban, such as masks worn for health reasons, for sports like fencing and at public fetes such as carnivals.
Authorities in several European countries have been debating similar bans. Belgium's lower house has enacted a ban on the face-covering veil, though it must be ratified by the upper chamber.
Said Aalla, president of a mosque in the eastern city of Strasbourg, said he believes legislators have the right to pass laws on societal issues. But like many French Muslims, he is concerned about how police will enforce it.
"Is this a law that is going to be implemented in a serene way, so as not to stigmatize the Muslim population?" he asked.
Amnesty International has urged French lawmakers to reject the bill, and a French anti-racism group, MRAP, which opposes such dress, has said a law would be "useless and dangerous." France's highest administrative body, the Council of State, warned in March that a total ban risks being found unconstitutional.
France banned common Muslim headscarves and other obvious religious symbols from classrooms in 2004.
Associated Press Writer Rafael Mesquita and APTN senior producer Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.
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