French cabinet unites to pass burka bill that has split country

Rising tension over the burka has led to violent attacks, as the French cabinet yesterday approved a draft law to ban garments "designed to hide the face" in the country.

The bill will now go before parliament in July. President Nicolas Sarkozy told assembled ministers: "In this matter the government is taking a path it knows to be difficult, but a path it knows to be just," according to his office. He said France was "an old nation united around a certain idea of personal dignity, particularly women's dignity, and of life together. It's the fruit of centuries of efforts."

As the issue grows ever more contentious it has led to isolated incidents of violence in the country. A heated debate on the face-covering veil degenerated into violence and verbal aggression on Tuesday night, the eve of the presentation of the anti-burka bill.

The police intervened after the debate, held at an elementary school in Montreuil in the eastern suburbs of Paris, organised by the feminist movement Ni Putes Ni Soumises (neither whores nor submissives) and attended by more than 100 people, was disrupted by members of the pro-Palestinian group Sheikh Yassin. Blows were exchanged before the police arrived and blocked the exits to the school, and asked the victims to identify their attackers.

On Saturday, France experienced its first official case of "burka rage" when a 60-year-old female lawyer is alleged to have tried to pull a Muslim woman's veil from her face.

The Muslim woman, formerly a practising Catholic, named only as Elodie, said she had been leaving a shoe shop in Trignac, near Nantes in western France, when two passers-by started insulting her before telling her to "return to her country".

The altercation turned violent with the two women allegedly slapping each other. "Things got nasty," Elodie said. "The older woman grabbed my veil to the point of ripping it off." She said her Muslim husband opposed the veil. "This is not my submission to a man, but to God," she said. "If the law is passed, either I won't go out any more or I'll move to Saudi Arabia." Police detained all three women involved in the incident, with both sides pressing charges.

Muslim graves have been desecrated and a mosque and halal butcher's shop shot at in recent weeks. A woman was fined for driving while veiled last month. The Council of State, France's top legal advisory body, has already warned that a complete ban on veils in public would be unconstitutional, but Mr Sarkozy said the government had decided "in good conscience" that it must outlaw them, telling the cabinet meeting that government and parliament must shoulder their political and moral responsibility. "This is a decision one doesn't take lightly. Nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I'm thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected."

According to the text of the draft law, those who flout it will be fined €150 (£130) or sent on a citizenship course. Anyone who forces someone, through threats, violence or misuse of a position of authority, to cover her face because of her sex will be jailed for a year and fined €15,000, the law says.

The text, which could be amended once it reaches parliament, foresees a six-month delay in its application to explain the law and mediate with recalcitrant women who cover their faces, which means it wouldn't take effect until early in 2011.

The Interior Ministry estimates that of France's five million-strong Muslim minority, the largest in Europe, there are 1,900 women who cover their faces with veils.

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