With Prime Minister Francois Fillon seeking the advice of the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, on the feasibility of a law, France moved a step closer to banning the full veil — the niqab, and the burqa.

In his letter, Mr. Fillon asked the body to study the legal possibilities that would allow such a ban while respecting the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The letter was released on Friday.

A parliamentary commission last week recommended banning full facial veils in public places such as state-run hospitals, government offices and public transport but stopped short of proposing legislation for the fear that it would be challenged as unconstitutional. The recommendations include the denial of medical, transport or other public services to women who refuse to uncover their faces.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is in favour of a complete ban, saying the burqa is a sign of female enslavement and subservience and that such garments have no place in France. Francois Coppe, head of the Conservative group in Parliament, has pushed hard for a ban and Conservative lawmaker Eric Raoult, who served on the parliamentary commission, said a ban could be in place by the end of 2010.

In his letter, Mr. Fillon said he wanted the council to advice on legislation that would lead to the “widest and most effective” application possible of a ban. He wants the council to provide its guidance by the end of March.

Imposing a ban of some nature on all-encompassing veils could be done through a parliamentary resolution without taking recourse to legislation that could be challenged in the French Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

In his letter, he also said he wanted a way out that would not hurt Muslim sentiment. But it is difficult to imagine lawmakers pulling off such a feat. France is home to five million Muslims — the largest concentration in Europe, and Islam is the country’s second most practised religion.

Under 2,000 women wear the burqa or the niqab and Muslims feel they are being singled out for stigmatisation.

“Let us see what happens. France loves to legislate but several laws remain a dead letter — never implemented, never applied. Our legislators think it is enough to pass a law for a problem to be fixed. If they pass a law and it remains symbolic — that is the President does not sign it, as happens more often than we think, and it remains on the statute books or in the penal code but is never applied, life will carry on as before with a tolerance for this very tiny minority of women who wear these garments. But if the government is determined to levy fines and keep women out of hospitals and public transport, then the situation could turn ugly,” lawyer Safia Mourad told The Hindu.

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