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Updated: March 30, 2010 21:46 IST

Setback to French move on veil ban

Vaiju Naravane
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This January 12, 2010 file photo shows Faiza Silmi, a 32-year-old Moroccan, walking in Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Paris. AP.
This January 12, 2010 file photo shows Faiza Silmi, a 32-year-old Moroccan, walking in Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Paris. AP.

The Conseil d etat, France's highest administrative court, on Tuesday said a proposed law banning the wearing of the burqa in public places could prove to be unconstitutional. The court said even a partial ban would be difficult to implement but suggested the state could justify rules calling for people to keep their faces uncovered in public.

Following the crushing defeat suffered by President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing coalition in regional polls held a week ago, which saw extreme right-wing voters returning to the fold of the xenophobic, islamophobic and anti-immigrant National Front, Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced the government was contemplating new legislation to ban the burqa in France.

With presidential elections just two years away, the right-wing is already trying hard to win back extreme right voters and a ban on the burqa would have gone a long way in appeasing disgruntled National Front voters who feel President Sarkozy has not been tough enough on immigration, security and “radical Islam”.

The Prime Minister had therefore sought the opinion of the Conseil regarding the constitutionality of such a move. Several human rights associations and Muslim groups had threatened to take the government to court if a ban were imposed.

A total ban risks violating the constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, said the court said in its report. “No indisputable legal basis for a general and absolute ban on wearing a complete face-covering veil could be found,” said the report.

The council also concluded that a ban on covering the face regardless of the type of dress also would run into legal hurdles. However, the Conseil said the state could legally demand that faces remain uncovered in other circumstances, including situations involving public security; in places where the sale of certain items requires age verification such as courts, polling stations, city hall, or the exits of schools when children are being picked up, among others.

Wearing a full-body veil is already forbidden in some cases: for public servants exercising their duties, in schools or in businesses where it would interfere with work, for example.

A parliamentary commission examined the issue for six months last year before making 15 recommendations in a report in January. That panel refrained from recommending a ban on face-covering veils.

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