(Feb. 17, 2010) On January 26, 2010, the President of the National Assembly published on the Assembly website the report prepared by the Parliamentary Commission to Study the Wearing of the Full Veil in France. (Assemblée Nationale, Rapport d’information au nom de la mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national, Jan. 26, 2010, available at http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/13/pdf/rap-info/i2262.pdf.) The Commission had been established six months earlier, on June 23, 2009. (See Nicole Atwill, France: Creation of Commission to Study Wearing of Burqa, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR, July 2, 2009, available at http://www.loc.gov/lawweb/servlet/lloc_news?disp3_l205401399_text.) France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, between five and six million people. The following are selected highlights of the report.
In the introduction, M. André Guerin, the President of the Commission, states that: “…the wearing of the full veil infringes upon three principles that are included in the motto of the Republic: liberty, equality and fraternity.” (Rapport, supra, at 13.) He further notes, however, that the members of the Commission were not unanimous as to whether or not a law banning the full veil in public places should be adopted by Parliament. He finally states that in the Commission’s view the question of the wearing of the full veil is “… only the tip of the iceberg,” underneath which lies Islamic fundamentalism. (Id.)
The Commission, which is comprised of 32 members representing all the parliamentary groups from the National Assembly, heard 211 witnesses and experts. Questionnaires on how other countries handle the issue were sent to the French embassies located in the European Union Member States, the United States, Canada, Turkey, and several Arab countries. The members of the Commission also went to Belgium on a fact-finding mission. The Commission heard from all the political groups represented in the Senate and the National Assembly. Almost all of the hearings were public, and they have been posted on the website of the National Assembly. (Id. at 20-21.)
In the first part of the report, the Commission explains that the term “full veil” includes three categories of clothing, the niqab, which covers all the body and the face with the exception of the eyes; the sitar, an additional veil that covers the eyes so that no part of the woman’s body is visible, the hands being covered by gloves; and the burqa, which entirely covers the body and has a mesh grille in front of the eyes. (Id. at 25-26.) A study prepared in 2009 by the Interior Ministry shows that approximately 1,900 women are wearing the niqab in France; it found no one wearing the burqa. (Id. at 42.)
According to the experts on Islam who testified — including Mr. Dalil Boubakeur, former rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, and the members of the French Council of the Muslim Faith — these types of clothing existed before the advent of Islam and the practice of wearing them “rests upon an interpretation of the Quran and of the Muslim tradition that is very questionable and held by a minority.” (Id. at 25, 36, & 38.)
In addition to reviewing how the veil is viewed in other countries, the Commission evaluated the practice in light of the basic French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Several witnesses testified that freedom to wear clothing of their choice did not exist in some Parisian suburbs, as the social pressure to wear the full veil was so strong that they have to conform. The representative of the association Femmes Solidaires reported several cases near Paris of eight-year-old girls fully covered by veils. (Id. at 99.) In a high school near Lyon, a group of Muslim students asked the headmaster to provide them with a room where they could change their clothes to wear clothes similar to the ones worn by other students, as their parents were forcing them to wear clothes hiding all signs of femininity. (Id. at 97-100.)
The Commission concluded that:
the practice of the wearing of the full veil is an infringement of the principle of freedom. One cannot liken it to the simple will to be noticed, because it is very often worn as a result of varying degrees of inexplicit pressures or of explicit ones. The full veil is the symbol of subservience, the ambulatory expression of a denial of liberty that touches a specific category of the population: women. In this it also constitutes a negation of the principle of equality. (Id. at 107.)
The report further lists the constitutional provisions and international agreements signed by France that set forth the fundamental principle of gender equality. The wearing of the full veil is seen as contrary to these provisions and as “sexual apartheid, with on one side the world of men that is open and on the other side the world of women, constrained and closed.” The report continues that the wearing of the veil results in “the disappearance of the woman in her specificity. … It takes her away from the public place.” (Id. at 107-113.)
With regard to the principle of fraternity, witnesses and experts stressed the importance of the face in our social life, the face as “the mirror of the soul.” They further noted that the wearing of the veil constitutes the negation of the contact with others. It also imposes an unequal situation on the other person, who is seen without seeing. The Commission noted that most of the witnesses who testified agreed that the wearing of the veil was an infringement on the social code that constitutes minimal rules for living together in French society. (Id. at 116-122.)
The third part of the report addresses the Commission recommendations and the legal basis on which some of these recommendations can be put into place without violating either the French Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights. (Id. at 129-185.) The Commission first calls on Parliament to adopt a resolution declaring that “the wearing of the full veil is contrary to the values of the Republic.” (Id. at 129.) A majority of the Commission members favored adopting a law prohibiting the wearing in public spaces of the full veil as well as any other clothing entirely covering the face, based upon the notion of public order.
Additional recommendations include:
· conducting mediation with women wearing the veil and their families to better understand their motivations;
· notifying the competent authorities of any minor wearing the full veil, within the framework of the protection of minors in danger;
· reinforcing civic education, in particular the teaching of gender equality, within the framework of the integration contract that immigrants who wish to settle in France have to sign;
· adding gender equality and secularism to the values that persons wishing to obtain a long-stay visa need to be aware of;
· refusing the issuance of a residence card or French citizenship to individuals who practice their religion in a way incompatible with the values of the Republic, in particular, with the principle of gender equality. It should be considered a lack of integration with French society;
· adopting a provision prohibiting the covering of one’s face in a public space;
· taking into account, in asylum requests, wearing of the full veil as an indication of a more general persecution;
· introducing legislation that would make psychological violence between a couple a criminal offense; and
· adding incitement to i
nfringe upon the dignity of the person to article 24 of the Law on the Freedom of the Press, which already punishes incitement to discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons based on racial, religious, ethnic, or national origin.
Following the publication of the report, the Prime Minister, François Fillon, asked the Conseil d’Etat (France’s highest administrative court) to study the various legal grounds for a ban on the full veil that would be as broad as possible, as the basis for preparation of a draft law to be submitted to Parliament no later than the end of March 2009. (Le Premier Ministre demande au Conseil d’Etat d’étudier les solutions juridiques pour interdire le port du voile intégral, Prime Minister’s website, Jan. 29, 2010, available at http://www.gouvernement.fr/premier-ministre/le-premier-ministre-demande-