Time to lift the veil on attitudes all over again

29th April 2011 at 01:00
France - The new law against the covering of faces is set to reopen debate in a country that has challenged the burqa head on

When France introduced a ban on wearing headscarves at schools in 2004 - a measure more extreme in its way than the new law on face-covering veils - a strange thing happened.

For the most part, whatever they thought about restrictions on the freedom to dress as they wished, Muslim pupils complied. And among those who voluntarily observed the edict were girls who did so for a reason many considered rather noble.

In the summer immediately before the headscarf ban took effect, two French journalists were kidnapped in Iraq.

Among the abductors' demands was an ultimatum to the French government to withdraw the ban. With the encouragement of moderate Muslim leaders, opposed as they were to the government's actions, reluctant acquiescence was chosen as a way of showing solidarity with fellow French citizens in danger abroad.

There were challenges. The case of two girls, aged 11 and 12, excluded from their Normandy school for refusing to remove their headscarves for PE went to the European Court of Human Rights, but was dismissed. Yet France saw no sign of the widespread defiance that had been predicted.

The new ban on veils in public places carries the threat of a pound;130 fine. For a man who forces a woman to wear the veil, the fine can be up to 200 times higher and carry a jail term; if he coerces a minor the fine is 400 times greater.

Even though it applies only to the full face coverings, not the mere scarf schoolgirls must discard on entering state schools, the education system has again come under focus.

Education minister Luc Chatel has said the need to avoid "ostentatious" signs of faith extends to mothers or fathers accompanying their children on school trips.

"There is a principle, which must be non-negotiable, and that is the neutrality and secularism of our educational system," he said during a visit to Marseilles, France's second city and home to its largest Muslim population outside Paris.

President Sarkozy famously declared to an historic assembly of both French houses of parliament at Versailles nearly two years ago that the head-to- toe burqa was "not welcome" in France.

But the political figure otherwise most closely associated with the new law is a Communist, Andre Gerin, an MP and formerly mayor of Venissieux, a town near Lyon with a large immigrant community.

While preparing to head the parliamentary committee whose work led to legislation, Mr Gerin gave ringing endorsement to a headteacher who refused to hand over a child to the Muslim mother who turned up at school, her face completely covered, until she removed her veil to confirm her identity.

As France continues to debate the new law, such concerns echo loudly. In 2004, the kidnapped journalists were freed unharmed. This time, there is no parallel issue to test divided loyalties or make Muslims feel less isolated in society.

With presidential elections only a year away, France has not heard the last of its burqa ban, and the way schools deal with parents who might flout it will continue to come under scrutiny.

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