Lizzy Davies

Committee urges that anyone covering their face be barred from entering public sector property, including hospitals and schools, and using public transport.

France on Tuesday took the first step towards barring Muslim women from wearing the full veil when using public services, but stopped short of calling for an outright ban after critics argued that such a move would be socially divisive and hard to enforce.

A cross-party committee of MPs was set up last year to explore the controversial issue in France of burkas and niqabs. The committee recommended to Parliament that Muslim women should be allowed to carry on covering their faces in the street.

Its final report, however, recommended that anyone covering their face be barred from entering public sector property, including hospitals and schools, or using public transport.

Under the proposals, a woman who fails to remove her veil in such cases would not face a fine for breaking the law but would be refused access to the service. She would not, for instance, be allowed to collect her child benefit payments or take the bus.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who has repeatedly said that the full veil “is not welcome” on French soil, is believed to be in favour of this partial legislation rather than other, more radical suggestions from recalcitrant members of his own Right-wing UMP party.

The French President has been warned that an outright ban on the full veil could be found to be unconstitutional and almost impossible to put into practice. Mr. Sarkozy, who has stressed the need to find a solution in which “no one feels stigmatised”, is also keen to play down speculation that his policies are doing more to aggravate social divisions than bridge them.

Steps to ban the burka, which have been opposed by the Muslim Council of France and other religious groups, have coincided with the French government’s “big debate” on national identity. Critics of the government, from the Left and Right, have accused Mr. Sarkozy of encouraging dangerous rhetoric which has seen the country’s five million Muslims become the object of increasing critiques.

Tuesday’s cross-party report — whose contents were leaked to the French press last week — looks likely to recommend the passing of a non-binding parliamentary resolution setting out the country’s “symbolic” opposition to the full veil.

After that, steps should be taken to vote into law a series of “separate but multiple bans” which would make clear the garment’s practical incompatibility with French values of sexual equality and freedom, the report will say.

“We have to make life impossible for them in order to curb the phenomenon,” one MP told the French daily Le Figaro. However, opponents have said that banning the full veil either outright or partially would serve merely to reinforce the isolation of women already partially alienated from mainstream society.

The 32-member panel, which has been meeting and questioning experts on the issue for the past six months, was set up by Mr. Sarkozy last summer after he declared that the full veil was “a sign of subservience [and] debasement”.

The president of the committee, Communist MP Andre Gerin, has not made any secret of his desire to see a ban on what he has denounced as a “walking prison”. His feelings have tapped into growing concern in France over an item of clothing worn by a small minority of Muslim women. According to police figures, no more than 2,000 women — most of them young and a quarter of them converts — wear a face-covering veil.

In a country which places a high value on laicite — secularism — and which in 2004 banned headscarves in schools, it is unsurprising that such an overt display of religion has raised eyebrows. The major political parties, leading feminists and even one prominent imam have made clear their dislike for the full veil, which they view as an affront to women’s rights and a sign of an emerging strand of fundamentalist Islam.

Despite wide-ranging opposition to the garment and polls showing that a majority of the French public is in favour of a ban, opinions have differed in how to go about discouraging women from covering their faces.

The Socialist party, while condemning the full veil, has refused to support a ban. The UMP’s Jean-Francois Cope, a politician with half an eye on the 2012 presidential elections, grabbed the headlines with a proposal to outlaw the full veil anywhere on French streets and fine wearers €750 each — a suggestion rejected by the committee.

“The problem of public space, by that I mean the street, is very delicate,” said Mr. Gerin last week, explaining why his panel had rejected the option of an outright ban while not ruling it out for the future.

Mr. Cope, he added, was “behaving like a bull in a china shop”.