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French parliament debates ban on burqa-style veils

PARIS - The justice minister went before parliament yesterday to defend a hotly debated bill that would ban burqa-style Islamic veils in public, arguing that hiding your face from your neighbors is a violation of French values.

Michèle Alliot-Marie's speech before the National Assembly marked the start of parliamentary debate on the bill. It is widely expected to become law, despite the concerns of many French Muslims, who fear it will stigmatize them. Law scholars also argue it would violate the constitution.

The government has used various strategies to sell the proposal, casting it at times as a way to promote equality between the sexes, to protect oppressed women or to ensure security in public places.

Alliot-Marie argued that it has nothing to do with religion or security. She argued simply that life in the French Republic "is carried out with a bare face . . . It is a question of dignity, equality and transparency."

Officials have taken pains to craft language that does not single out Muslims: While the legislation is colloquially referred to as the "anti-burqa law," it is officially called "the bill to forbid covering one's face in public." Ordinary Muslim headscarves are common in France, but face-covering veils are a rarity. The Interior Ministry says only 1,900 women in France wear them.

Yet the planned law would be a turning point for Islam in a country with a Muslim population of at least 5 million people, the largest in western Europe.

France is determined to protect the country's deeply rooted secular values, and the conservative government is encouraging a moderate, state-sanctioned Islam that respects the secular state.

The legislation would forbid face-covering veils such as the niqab or burqa in all public places, even in the street. It calls for $185 fines or citizenship classes for women who run afoul of the law, and in some cases both. Anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil risks a year of prison and a fine of more than $37,000.

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