France may have the largest Muslim population in Europe, numbering some 5 to 6 million, but only about 2,000 women are estimated to wear the niqab, the full veil that covers the face apart from the eyes, often incorrectly labelled the burqa.
Last June, French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to focus on the practice, declaring the burqa "not welcome" in the secular French Republic. Now a parliamentary commission has recommended a ban on full veils in public buildings -- including schools, welfare offices and hospitals -- as well as on public transport.
The cross-party commission, made up of 32 lawmakers, stopped short of proposing a complete ban on the veil in public streets and shops. The committee chairman, Andre Gerin, a member of the Communist Party of France (PCF), told parliament on Tuesday that wearing a full veil was just "the tip of the iceberg." He said there were "scandalous practices hidden behind the veil," and vowed to fight "gurus" who were seeking to export a radical brand of Islamic fundamentalism to France.
The commission called on parliament to adopt a resolution declaring the full veil was "contrary to the values of the Republic," and proclaiming that "all of France is saying 'no' to the full veil." That is not quite true, though a sizeable majority, 57 percent, expressed their support for a ban in a poll conducted last week. Many French people regard the full veil as a gateway to extremism and as representing an attack on gender equality and secularism.
Critics of the ban have warned that it would alienate France's Muslims. They point out that it pertains only to a small group of women, and argue that the move is part of a pattern of rising Islamophobia in Europe -- following on the heels of a recent successful referendum calling for a ban on minarets in Switzerland.
On Tuesday, Sarkozy sought to allay fears that the French state was trying to stigmatize Muslims. Choosing a symbolic visit to a cemetery for French Muslim soldiers, he said the freedom to practice religion was enshrined in the constitution.
Fiercely secular France already imposed a ban on religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf, in public schools in 2004.
'We Cannot Ban the Full Veil Here'
Other European countries -- including the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium -- have considered similar bans. On Wednesday, an Italian minister said she supported the French proposal. Equal Opportunity Minister Mara Carfagna said that the French initiative, "will encourage other European countries, including Italy, to legislate on the issue" and said she planned to set up a working group to look into the issue.
Meanwhile, an expert on Islam in Germany believes a similar ban is not imminent here. "We cannot ban the full veil," Peter Heine, emeritus profesor for Islamic studies at Berlin's Humboldt University, told the DPA news agency. "The Muslim women affected wouldn't set aside the veils but would instead stay home." The result would be a greater social division, he warned.
According to Heine there are very few women in Germany who wear a full veil -- he estimates fewer than one percent. Apart from fundamentalists and extremely devout Muslim women, it is largely converts who see the veil as an important religious symbol. He called on Muslim groups in Germany to engage in a public debate. "They have to face up to this development," he said.
Split Reception in the Press
The German press on Wednesday is divided on its reception of the French proposal. The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung thinks the proposed ban is a good idea, saying it will signal to Muslims living in France that the French are "not prepared to bow to the pressure of a militant Islam and relativize the equality between men and women in the name of Islam."
The measure builds on the school headscarf ban introduced in 2004, the paper notes: "Even devout Muslims have accepted that their daughters have to leave the Islamic headscarf at the school door." Nicolas Sarkozy recently advised Muslims to practice their religion with "humble discretion" in reaction to the Swiss minaret ban. "In the midst of the debate over national identity he explained what France expects from its Muslim citizens," the paper writes, "-- more discretion, less provocation."
The conservative Die Welt, on the other hand, wonders how such a ban could be enforced: "Will it bring the women in question more freedom, or force them into complete isolation?" The paper points out that the values of the French Republic have been invoked, and yet "it is this very Republic, which in the name of its highest value -- freedom -- will march in to restrict the freedom of an individual to dress as she likes. Even a well formulated law won't resolve this paradox."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung argues that with rising unemployment in France, an attack on burqas is a "pure red herring," to distract from the deep crisis of the capitalist system. "It is no coincidence that so much energy is being spent right now on a battle against the state's new ideological enemy."
The paper accuses Sarkozy and his party, the UMP, of using nationalist rhetoric to prevent voters disappointed by the crisis management of the government from turning to the far right. The debate over national identity has become a focus for xenophobia and resentments targeted at Muslims, it argues. "The minaret ban in Switzerland has broken taboos in the UMP," writes the paper, "and lowered the threshold."