A total ban on wearing burkas in public could be illegal and violate human rights, France's highest administrative body has concluded.


Faiza Silmi, a 32-year-old Moroccan, walks in Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis, southwest of Paris. France's highest administrative body has concluded that a total ban of the type of full-body veil she's wearing could be illegal. ((Christophe Ena/Associated Press))

Such a ban on the full-body garment often worn by Muslim women risks violating the French Constitution as well as the European human rights convention, the Council of State said in a report released Tuesday.

Even a limited ban would be difficult to enforce and should be avoided, reported the council, which advises the French government on proposed legislation and studies public policy issues upon request.

However, the council did say that rules requiring the face to be uncovered could be justified in some situations, for security reasons or when knowing the age or sex of the person is important.

The report is the latest development in President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to ban burkas after he told the French in June that such garb was "not welcome" in France.

A parliamentary commission examined the issue for six months last year before making 15 recommendations in a report in January. That panel refrained from recommending a ban on face-covering veils.

Ban's legal basis disputable: council

Determined not to give up, Fillon asked the Council of State on Jan. 29 to study the issue further as a precaution to make sure that any possible bill would be legal even before it were voted by parliament.

The council determined that "no indisputable legal basis for a general and absolute ban on wearing a complete face-covering veil as such could be found," the report said. The council also concluded that a ban on covering the face regardless of the type of dress also would run into legal hurdles.

Wearing a full-body veil already is forbidden in some cases: for public servants exercising their duties, in schools or in businesses where it would interfere with work, for example.

Beyond that, the council found that presenting an uncovered face could be required and would have a solid legal foundation in other situations, too: those involving public security, for example, and in places where the sale of certain items requires age verification such as courts, polling stations, city hall, or the exits of schools when children are being picked up, among others.

An uncovered face could be required in hospitals, public toilets and swimming pools where it is necessary to know the sex of the person entering, the report said.

Establishments that sell alcohol, cigarettes and guns could also be required to sell only to people whose faces are not covered, the report said.

Appearance in public with a covered face also could be banned in certain train stations, department stores during the holiday season, fairs and street markets, the report said.

The burka issue is divisive in France.

Many conservatives, including Sarkozy, favour a restrictive ban, while others say women should be free to wear what they want.