French leaders push for ban of Muslim dress in public places

Lyon, France - France, which regards itself as the cradle of human rights, is moving to impose legal restrictions on Muslim women who wear Afghan-style burqas or other full-face veils.

The restrictions, likely to apply to many public places, come in response to resentment in France and other European countries over the growing visibility of Muslims -- immigrants or locally born -- on a continent with ancient Christian roots. The tensions have long run through European societies but increasingly are coming to the surface as the number of Muslims grows and symbols of their faith, including mosques, are seen as a challenge to European traditions.

Andre Gerin, a member of Parliament who recently completed six months of hearings on the burqa controversy, said that he has nothing against the more than 5 million Muslims in France but that full-face veils are the visible tip of an Islamist underground that threatens the French way of life.

Although veiled women are estimated to number no more than several thousand in this country of 64 million, Gerin said, behind them are what he called "gurus" who are trying to impose Islamic law on French society.

For instance, Gerin said, doctors at the Mother and Child Hospital in Lyon told him during a visit Thursday that they are threatened several times a week by angry Muslim men who refuse to allow their pregnant wives or daughters to be treated by male doctors, even for emergency births when nobody else is available. "The scope of the problem is a lot broader than I thought," he said at a news conference here summing up his findings. "It is insidious."

Gerin said representatives of several other European countries, as well as Canada, have expressed interest in his hearings, which included testimony from women's advocacy figures, Muslim leaders and sociologists.

Gerin, who also is mayor in the working-class Lyon suburb of Venissieux, said his parliamentary commission will present formal recommendations for legislation Jan. 26. They will probably urge a nonpartisan parliamentary resolution condemning full-face veils in principle, he said, to be followed by targeted decrees or laws banning veils in public facilities such as town halls, and then a general law prohibiting full veils in as many places as possible under the French constitution. As Gerin described it, that law would bar fully veiled women from, for instance, walking down the Champs Elysees.

"Our objective is not to stigmatize these women, but to be clean, clear-cut and precise -- the full-face veil has no place in France," he declared.

Women's advocacy groups, some of which include Muslim women, have strongly endorsed the proposed legislation to ban the full-face veil on grounds it offends women's dignity and symbolizes oppression by men. But several young Muslim women interviewed by French journalists have responded that they wear the veil of their own accord because they want to affirm adherence to a fundamentalist version of Islam.

Getting a jump on Gerin's commission, the leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy's parliamentary majority, Jean-Francois Cope, formally proposed this week a law banning full-face veils in any public place, including the streets. More than 200 members of Parliament backed his suggested legislation, he said.

Defense Minister Herve Morin, a centrist allied with Sarkozy, predicted such broad legislation would be unconstitutional. Moreover, he added, it could lead to embarrassing situations with foreigners, such as Persian Gulf billionaires who arrive in Paris with their fully veiled wives.

Sarkozy and his prime minister, Francois Fillon, responded to the clamor by saying they want Parliament first to approve a unanimous resolution declaring that the full-face veil is unacceptable in France. Then, they added in apparently coordinated statements, they will push for laws calibrated to ban the burqa as much as possible in public places without earning a rebuke from the Constitutional Council, the body that rules on constitutional issues.

The legislation should be debated only after regional elections scheduled in March, they added, to keep it from being caught up in party politics. Critics, particularly in the opposition Socialist Party, have charged that much of Sarkozy's concern over the issue, including his organization of a "national identity debate," is designed to curry favor with right-wing voters.

France's Muslim establishment, including the government-encouraged Muslim Religion Council, has declared that nothing in Islam requires women to wear full-face veils. At the same time, the council leader, Mohammed Moussaoui, has been reluctant to criticize women who wear a full veil and voiced fears that a legal ban would "stigmatize" Muslims in the same way he said they were stigmatized by a 2004 law banning headscarves in public schools.

In addition to the restrictions on full veils, Gerin said, his commission will urge the government to hand down new guidance for doctors, teachers and mayors who have to deal with what he called "threats and violence" from fundamentalist Muslims. History or biology teachers frequently are challenged by fundamentalist adolescents whose religious beliefs are contradicted by what they hear in school, he said, and in some communities half the girls in junior high physical education classes refuse to participate on religious grounds.

"Their ideas are not in conformity with our society," he added.