PARIS: France’s top administrative body advised the government Tuesday against slapping a complete ban on the full Islamic veil but said outlawing the burqa in some places was justified for security reasons.
Lawmakers from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party said they were determined to push for a total ban of the full-face veil in draft legislation to be presented in the coming weeks.
In a report presented to the government, the State Council warned that a blanket ban was unlikely to stand up to a court challenge and that there were no legal grounds for it.
The council said however that the government could invoke security and public order to require that faces be uncovered in public venues such as courts, schools, hospitals and during university exams, for example.
“It appears to the State Council that a general and absolute ban on the full veil as such can have no incontestable judicial basis,” the council said in a report to Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
“That said, for reasons of security and to combat fraud and furthermore because of the requirements of some public services, it would be justified to require that faces be uncovered in some places or for some procedures.”
The council did not spell out the specific places where the ban could be enforced and suggested that local prefects who represent the state in French departments could issue directives.
For reasons of public order, a ban on covered faces could apply to banks, international conferences, sporting events and places where large crowds gather, said Jean-Marc Sauve, the council’s vice president.
“We are facing a very disparate and unclear situation,” said Sauve, adding that lawmakers would have to decide themselves how far they wanted to go in making uncovered faces a rule.
Muslim women who insist on covering themselves in violation of the law should be spared from paying a fine and instead be referred for counseling to a women’s rights association, the council said.
Prime Minister Fillon asked the State Council in January for a legal opinion before drafting the bill that he said would ban the burqa in as many places as possible.
Following the report, the government is expected to press ahead quickly with legislation, which would affect the estimated 1,900 Muslim women in France who are currently veiled for religious reasons.
The deputy leader of the governing UMP party in parliament, Jean Leonetti, insisted a total ban was the only answer and that lawmakers could well decide to ignore the State Council’s recommendations.
“A ban needs to be complete or else it is misunderstood,” said Leonetti. “We still are of the view that a message needs to be sent that is clear and does not waver in terms of its implementation.”
Sarkozy has declared the burqa “not welcome” in secular France and is in favor of legislation to outlaw it, although he has also warned against stigmatizing Muslims.
Home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority estimated at between five and six million, France has been debating a ban on the veil, with supporters arguing it is a sign of creeping fundamentalism that must not be allowed to take hold.
The government’s move comes after a four-month national identity debate exposed France’s anxieties about immigration and at times gave way to anti-Muslim rants.