Even in France, a full-scale burka ban remains unlikely

John Lichfield
Saturday 17 July 2010 00:00 BST

In theory, it should be illegal to wear a burka, or any full-face mask, in France from next spring. The lower house of the French parliament voted by 335 to one on Tuesday to approve a law "against the concealment of the face in public". The centre left opposition abstained.

In practice, the law may never be enforced in its present form. It will pass the upper house of parliament, or Senate, in September but is almost certain to be struck down, or watered down, by the constitutional watchdog of the French state, the Conseil Constitutionnel.

The vote generated far more interest outside France – suggesting that the burka, or its Arab equivalent the Niqab, is now far from a pressing issue for the French public.

The French internal security services estimate that only 1,900 women in France wear the full-face veil – roughly 0.1 per cent of the adult, female, Muslim population. Supporters of the ban, on both the left and the right, say the burka is an affront to the principle of Liberté enshrined in the French constitution. Opponents – and the "sages" of the Conseil Constitutionnel – say the ban is itself an assault on individual liberty.

Under the law approved by the National Assembly this week, anyone wearing a face mask, with a few stated exceptions, can be fined €150 (£130) or sent on a "citizenship" course. Anyone forcing a woman to wear a full-face veil can be fined €30,000 or jailed for a year.

Exceptions are allowed for motor-cyclists and carnival-goers, and for sportspeople such as fencers and skiers.

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