French parliament adopts full face-veil ban
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The French parliament passed a law Tuesday prohibiting wearing a full-face veil in public, meaning a ban will come into force early next year if it is not overturned by senior judges. The Senate passed the bill by 246 votes to one. The bill already cleared the lower house in July, and will now be reviewed by the Constitutional Council, which has a month to confirm its legality.
The text makes no mention of Islam, but President Nicolas Sarkozy's government promoted the law as a means to protect women from being forced to wear Muslim full-face veils such as the burqa or the niqab.
Once in force, the law provides for a six-month period of "education" to explain to women already wearing a face veil that they face arrest and a fine if they continue to do so in any public space.
A woman who chooses to defy the ban will receive a fine of 150 euros (195 dollars) or a course of citizenship lessons. A man who forces a woman to go veiled will be fined 30,000 euros and serve a jail term.
"This is not about security or religion, but respecting our republican principles," Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie declared before the vote.
"France, land of secularism, guarantees respect for all religions (but) hiding the face under a face-covering veil is against public social order, whether it is forced or voluntary," she said.
Some other European countries are mulling similar bans, but critics of the law in its proposed form believe it is too broadly framed and that it will eventually be overturned as unconstitutional and discriminatory.
The vote comes when some of France's other policies -- especially a drive to round up and expel Roma Gypsies -- have led to accusation of racism, and the tough new law is expected to draw further criticism from rights groups.
While Sarkozy's determination to halt what some here see as the spread of the use of the niqab won enough votes in parliament, opponents argue it breaches French and European human rights legislation.
The bill defines public space very broadly, including not just government buildings and public transport, but all streets, markets and thoroughfares, private businesses and entertainment venues.
Critics say the law exploits a non-problem -- only about 1,900 women among France's five to six million Muslims wear a full veil -- and panders to anti-Muslim sentiment while distracting from France's economic woes.
Some Muslim leaders say they support steps to discourage women from wearing the full veil, but that a law would unfairly stigmatise a vulnerable group.
Nevertheless, the ban enjoys broad popular support. An international poll conducted in April and May by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that more than eight in 10 French voters supported a ban.
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