A French parliamentary panel says the country should prohibit Muslim women from wearing face-veils in public buildings such as hospitals and schools, but stops short of outlawing the garb entirely.
The panel's 200-page report Tuesday calls for changes in France's laws that would require people to show their faces and keep them uncovered when entering public facilities such as hospitals, schools, post offices, universities, government buildings and all public services, including public transport.
The proposed restrictions do not extend to private buildings or on the street, stopping short of an outright ban many critics suggested would be unconstitutional.
The recommendations come after a committee of 32 legislators from four political parties convened six months ago to address the wearing of burkas or niqabs, which are often viewed in France as a gateway to extremism and an insult to gender equality.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made face-veils a political issue, saying last summer that burkas imprison women and that they would not be tolerated in France.
In France, the terms "burka" and "niqab" are often used interchangeably. A burka is a full-face veil, often in black, while a niqab has a small opening in the veil for the woman's eyes.
The panel's report also recommends modifying rules governing foreigners residing in France or seeking asylum, to ensure refusal of a resident card to those who "manifest a radical practice of their religion."
Muslims feel singled out
France has over five million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, but only a few thousand are believed to wear burkas or niqabs, which are rooted more in Middle Eastern culture than with religious teachings.
But representatives of France's Muslim population feel that the attention paid to the burka is a sign their faith has been singled out unfairly and that a ban would stigmatize all Muslims and possibly drive some to extremism. In 2004 the country banned Muslim head scarves from primary and secondary school classrooms.
"I don't think an ideology should be fought through constraining measures, but through ideas," said Mohammed Moussaoui, who heads an umbrella group of Muslim organizations.
"It's very difficult to talk about the liberation of women through a law that constrains."
Muslim veils have been controversial in Canada as well, with the federal Conservatives introducing a bill in 2007 that would have forced veiled women to show their faces when voting.
But last year Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic reform, said the government had no plans to go forward with the legislation because of other priorities.