By: Hannah Cochrane
Pace International Law Review, Junior Associate
A French Parliamentary Commission released in late January recommended a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils. Although only worn by a small number of Muslim women, the veil symbolizes a larger debate on multiculturalism and immigration throughout Western Europe. Last June, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pronounced that the burqa, a full body and face covering worn by some Muslim women, was against French values and “not welcome in the Republic.” The Commission was soon formed to investigate whether the burqa was against the principles of French constitutionalism.
The recommended ban would apply in state facilities, including all government offices, hospitals, schools and on public transport. The ban would not only apply to burqas, but to any article covering the face in public. The Commission hoped that by not limiting the prohibition to burqas, it would comply with the principle of proportionality under the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects religious freedom and freedom of expression. The Commission also stopped short of outlawing the face veil completely, because they were unsure of the constitutionality of the recommendation.
However, Jean-François Copé, head of Sarkozy’s right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (“UMP”) party, has already presented a bill in the parliament calling for a full ban. He justifies the ban by claiming that it is necessary for the security of the country, and dismisses the notion that a full ban would be unconstitutional. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon tradition where citizenship is defined by individual rights, the ‘republican’ tradition of revolutionary France is marked by public participation in the political process. Proponents of the ban say that the burqa cuts the wearer off from the public sphere of life and violates these republican traditions. A poll for Le Point Magazine found fifty-seven percent of the French support a ban on appearing in public wearing clothes that cover the face.
Opponents of the ban say it will violate the rights of women who wear the burqa by their own free will and that those women who wear it out of obedience to their husband or father will be relegated to their home. The Commission’s report acknowledges the multiplicity of reasons that may motivate a woman to don the veil. However, it ultimately rejects the notion of compatibility with the French values of secularism and equality. “The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic,” states the report. While the debate is far from settled, it is clear that the controversy is alienating France’s five million Muslims, even though the ban would affect a very small number of them.