PARIS, (Reuters) – France’s official Muslim council has warned the government not to expect it to impose a planned ban on full face veils for women that legal experts argue will be unconstitutional and police predict will be unenforceable.
Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), said his group opposed the full veil and would try to convince the tiny minority of veiled women that it was not a religious obligation and was out of place in France.
But Muslim leaders could not act as agents of the state during a six- month “mediation period” during which veiled women will be stopped and informed about the law but not fined.
The draft law, due to be passed this autumn, bans wearing full veils in public. After the mediation period, veiled women must pay a 150 euro ($182.8) fine or take “citizenship lessons” while anyone found forcing them to veil risks a 15,000 euro fine. “It will be very hard to apply,” Moussaoui told journalists on Thursday. “The CFCM has said it’s ready to work for this, but not as someone mandated by the state. It’s the duty of society to shoulder its responsibility for the mediation.”
Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has said she would depend on the police, the CFCM and local civic associations to convince covered women their veils violated French values.
Police unions have warned that stopping veiled women in the street could lead to chaotic scenes and protests. “There will be lots of refusals, it will degenerate into insult and outrage, they’ll be detained and families will gather outside the police station,” Yannick Danio of the Unite SGP-Police union told the newspaper Le Monde. Other critics of the ban have said radical Muslims might provoke such confrontations to extend their influence.
France’s Council of State, a top legal advisory body, has twice warned that a ban would probably violate the French constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, but President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to push ahead with it. “Some politicians see in the veil a provocation to the authority of the state,” Moussaoui said. “But if the Council of State, the Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights censure any law that is passed, the state’s authority will also be weakened.”
Moussaoui made clear the CFCM, which represents 86 percent of mosques in France, opposed the full face veil, “Nobody accepts it… A veiled woman cannot have a normal social life.”
But it also opposed the ban, which it thought would force veiled women to stay at home and not tackle the root question of why they want to isolate themselves from French society.
Asked how the CFCM could convince women to remove their burqas and niqabs, he said the fact that women had to uncover their faces to perform some rituals on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca showed full veils were not required in Islam. “How can a practice forbidden on the haj become obligatory outside of it?” he asked.
Fewer than 2,000 women in France’s 5-million-strong Muslim community are estimated to wear full veils. Moussaoui said a large minority of them were converts, who opt for strict practices in the false belief they reflect authentic Islam. “They say they’ve studied the scriptures and made their decision,” he said. “It’s an illusion to think a convert can interpret the scriptures. They don’t have the training to do that. That’s for judges to do, not for just anybody.”