Lawmaker plans bill to ban all-encompassing veil

Paris, France - A French parliamentarian said Tuesday he would file legislation to bar Muslim women from wearing veils that hide their faces in public.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that burqa-like veils are "not welcome" in France, and a parliamentary panel has been gathering information on the subject to release in a nonbinding report expected next month.

Lawmaker Jean-Francois Cope, who heads the president's UMP party in the National Assembly, the lower chamber, suggested Tuesday that he would submit his bill before the panel issues its report. He said he wants the veil banned not just from public buildings but also in the streets of France.

"We want a ban in public areas," Cope said.

Only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France wear the extreme covering - not required by Islam. Authorities worry such dress may be a gateway to extremism, and say it amounts to an insult to women while also going against the deeply secular nature of France.

However, the speaker of the lower chamber, Bernard Accoyer, said he felt his UMP party colleague's plan risks "appearing premature" before the parliamentary panel issues its report.

"On such a societal question that (concerns) the fundamental principles of our Republic, the search for a large consensus is a priority," Accoyer said.

Muslim leaders and secular experts have told the panel that a full ban could stigmatize all Muslims and would pose enforcement problems.

Cope said after a meeting of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement that he planned to file two distinct texts in January, one of which would ensconce the ban in a larger bill forbidding people from covering their faces on security grounds.

The other text would be a resolution regarding respect for women's rights. A resolution approved by lawmakers does not carry the weight of law, but solemnly affirms a principle.

Cope suggested a fine could be levied against anyone breaking the ban. However, he also suggested a period of mediation lasting several months "with the women in question and their husbands ... to explain" and discuss the issue.

Such a mediation period was put in place after France banned Muslim headscarves from classrooms in 2004 after a marathon parliamentary debate. Other "ostentatious" religious symbols were included in the ban but it targeted headscarves.