France bans burqas in public though law may face challenge

PARIS — The French Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to ban the wearing of the Islamic all-body veil, or burqa, in all public places.

Following the passage of the bill in the National Assembly in July, the ban is now scheduled to come into law early next year, after six months of mediation and briefings on what the law entails.

The law will impose a fine of 150 euros (about $192) or a lesson in citizenship on any woman caught wearing the burqa outside her home.

A man convicted of forcing a woman to wear the garment, meanwhile, would be liable to a fine of up to 30,000 euros (about $39,000) and a one-year prison sentence.

The approval of the bill, by a vote of 246 to 1, was widely expected, since the ruling UMP party has a sizable majority in the body and the opposition Socialists said they would not oppose it.

The law declares that "no one may wear a garment aimed at concealing his face in a public area."

It does not, therefore, target the burqa specifically, but can also be applied to a demonstrator or anyone else who conceals his face with a hood and bandana.

The bill was intentionally worded in a vague manner to avoid charges that it specifically targeted the Islamic community.

However, Socialists as well as France's highest administrative body, the Council of State, have warned that a total ban on full-body Islamic veils in public risks being found unconstitutional.

The Council of State warned earlier this year that even a limited ban would be difficult to enforce, since it risks violating the French constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.

During the brief debate on the bill, Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie addressed this criticism, arguing that living in France with an uncovered face was "a question of dignity and equality."

She maintained that the ban as proposed by the government "is based on a constitutional foundation, public social order."

"Concealing one's face under the all-body veil is contrary to the public social order," Alliot-Marie said.

To test the constitutionality of the law, the speakers of both houses of parliament brought it before the French Constitutional Council, the highest court in the land.

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