France moves to outlaw the burka and niqab citing égalité

Proposal angers Sarkozy as he struggles to contain surge in anti-Islamic feeling

The parliamentary leader of the ruling French party is to put forward a draft law within two weeks to ban the full-body veil from French streets and all other public places.

The announcement by Jean-François Copé, cutting short an anguished six-month debate on the burka and its Arab equivalent, the niqab, will divide both right and left and is likely to anger President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr Copé, in an interview with Le Figaro to be published tomorrow, said that he would bring forward a law which would impose fines of up to €750 (£675) on anyone appearing in public "with their face entirely masked". Exemptions, still to be drafted, would permit the wearing of masks on "traditional, festive occasions", such as carnivals. Stiffer punishments would be laid down for men who "forced" their wives or daughters to wear full-body veils.

President Sarkozy has been trying to contain a surge of anti-Islamic feeling unleashed in France by his call in October for a "debate on national identity". He said on Monday that he saw no reason for immediate legislation to ban the burka or full-length veil.

In a private meeting with parliamentary members of his centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), he suggested that they should simply pass a resolution declaring the burka or niqab to be contrary to French traditions of freedom and laws on women's rights. If such a declaration in the National Assembly had no effect, the President said, parliament could legislate in six months' time.

Mr Copé, the leader of the overwhelming UMP majority in the lower house of parliament, nonetheless told Le Figaro that he would publish a draft law within two weeks to, in effect, ban the burka. Once passed, he said, the law could be held in abeyance for six months to allow "discussions" with the Muslim community in France.

This is the latest of a series of acts of defiance by Mr Copé, who sees himself as a future successor to Mr Sarkozy. A parliamentary commission of inquiry into the wearing of the burka or niqab in France – set up last summer – will not publish its findings before the end of this month.

The ruling body of the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, said yesterday it was "totally opposed to the burka" which amounted to a "prison for women". But it announced, after a heated two-hour debate in its national executive, that a legal ban would be "counter-productive" and "opportunistic".

However Mr Copé can probably count on the support of a large majority of deputies from his own, and centrist and left-wing, opposition parties, when he presents his draft law to the assembly. The debate about the burka – and whether it is fundamentally contrary to French republican commitments to liberty and equality – was launched by a Communist member of parliament last June.

Some senior figures on the left have supported the idea of a legal ban. So has Fadela Amara, a left-wing campaigner for the rights of Muslim women who entered Mr Sarkozy's government in 2007 as Minister for Urban Development.

Most moderate Islamic leaders have sharply criticised the burka but suggested that it was such a limited phenomenon in France that legislation was unnecessary and might alienate moderate Muslims.

The burka, per se, is an Afghan tradition allowing a woman only a narrow gauze-covered eye-opening. It is little found in France. The Arab equivalent, the Niqab, which has a narrow opening at eye-level, is only slightly more common.

A study by the French internal security services last year suggested that the total number of women wearing both types of full body veil in France was around 2,000 – out of a total French population of adult, Muslim women of about 1,500,000.

Most of those women who wear full-length veils are below 30 years of age, the report said. Many had been influenced by radical forms of Islam; a substantial proportion were French women who had converted.

Yesterday the veteran far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, also rejected the need for new legislation against the burka, perhaps surprisingly. He said that the existing French legal code already banned masks in public places. "All they need to do is apply the law," he said.

Mr Copé, in his interview with Le Figaro, said a specific ban was justified by security concerns – the need to oppose extremist forms of Islam – but also by an obligation to "protect and respect the rights of women".

He said his law would make it illegal to "hide the face in any place open to the public or on the public highway". "There will be a few cultural exceptions, such as carnivals, but we have not yet drawn up the list."

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