The Islamic full-body veil should be banned from French public offices, hospitals, trains and buses, according to a parliamentary investigation which reported yesterday. In a bad-tempered final session, the committee of inquiry angered many members of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling centre-right party by rejecting their demands for an outright ban on the burka or niqab. After a muddled and heated six-month investigation, the committee decided that such a ban might be declared unconstitutional under French and European law.
Instead, a narrow majority of the 32 members accepted a compromise suggested by Mr Sarkozy and the Prime Minister, François Fillon. They called for a solemn, but unenforceable, parliamentary motion declaring the full-length veil – a marginal but growing phenomenon in France – to be "un-French". They said that this should be followed soon by a law forbidding people to cover their faces in "official" public spaces, from hospitals to post offices.
The committee's recommendation split the ruling Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) down the middle. The party's parliamentary leader, Jean-François Cope, immediately announced that he would push ahead with his own draft law calling for an outright ban. Officially, Socialist MPs boycotted the final meeting of the inquiry, alleging that it had been "polluted" by party politics and hijacked by "faction fighting" within the UMP. Several leading socialist politicians defied the boycott, however, and support an outright ban.
The possibility of a law against the full-length veil was first raised last summer by a Communist MP. Initially, the idea was supported by President Sarkozy. More recently, he has been trying to contain a surge of anti-Islamic feeling unleashed by his call for a "debate on national identity". He has let it be known that he opposes legislation to ban the burka or niqab outright.
More than half of French people think the full-length veil offends the French Republican values of liberty and equality and should be banned. Moderate Islamic leaders have criticised the burka but fear that a ban might alienate moderate Muslims. A moderate imam who has publicly condemned the burka, Hassen Chalghoumi, was denounced as a "miscreant" and "apostate" when 80 men forced their way into a prayer meeting at his mosque in Drancy, north of Paris, on Monday night.
The burka, which allows only a narrow gauze-covered eye-opening, 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 last year suggested that the total number of women wearing both types of full-body veil was around 1,900 – out of a total French population of adult, Muslim women of about 1.5 million to 2 million.
In a pointed visit to a First World War military cemetery in northern France, President Sarkozy later yesterday praised the contribution of Muslims to French history. Speaking before 500 Muslim soldiers' graves which have been vandalised several times in recent months, he said: "I will let no one stigmatise Muslim citizens of France."