The French Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday for a bill banning the burka-style Islamic veil everywhere from post offices to streets, a move that affects only a tiny minority of the country's Muslim women but has significant symbolic repercussions.
The Senate voted 246 to 1 in favour of the bill, which has already passed in the lower chamber, the National Assembly. It will need President Nicolas Sarkozy's signature to become law.
Dissenters have 10 days to challenge the measure in the constitutional Council watchdog, but that is considered unlikely.
Legislative leaders said they wanted the constitutional Council to examine it.
"This law was the object of long and complex debates," the Senate president, Gerard Larcher, and National Assembly head Bernard Accoyer said in a joint statement explaining their move. They said they want to be certain there is "no uncertainty" about it conforming to the constitution.
The measure affects fewer than 2,000 women, but Muslims believe it is one more blow to France's second religion, and risks raising the level of Islamophobia in a country where mosques, like synagogues, are sporadic targets of hate. Some women have vowed to wear a full-face veil despite the law.
The proposed law was passed overwhelmingly by the National Assembly on July 13. The green light from the Senate would make it definitive once the president signs off on it — barring amendments and an eventual legal challenge.
In France, the terms "burka" and "niqab" often are used interchangeably. The latter is a full-face veil, often in black. Unlike the burka, it does not obscure a woman's eyes.
'A law that is unlawful'
The measure would outlaw face-covering veils in streets, including those worn by tourists from the Middle East and elsewhere. It is aimed at ensuring gender equality, women's dignity and security, as well as upholding France's secular values and way of life.
Kenza Drider, however, said she'll flirt with arrest to wear her veil as she pleases.
"It is a law that is unlawful," said Drider, a mother of four from Avignon, in southern France.
"It is ... against individual liberty, freedom of religion, liberty of conscience," she said.
"I will continue to live my life as I always have with my full veil," she told Associated Press Television News.
Drider was the only woman who wears a full-faced veil to be interviewed by a parliamentary panel that spent six months deciding whether to move ahead with legislation.
Muslim leaders concur that Islam does not require a woman to hide her face. But they have voiced concerns that a law forbidding them to do so would stigmatize the French Muslim population, which at an estimated five million is the second largest in France and the largest in western Europe. Numerous Muslim women who wear the face-covering veil have said they are now being harassed in the streets.
Raphael Liogier, a sociology professor who heads the Observatory of the Religious in Aix-en-Provence, said Muslims in France are already targeted by hate-mongers and the ban on face-covering veils "will officialize Islamophobia."
"With the identity crisis that France has today, the scapegoat is the Muslim," he said.
'I'll exclude myself from society when I wanted to live in it.' —Oum Al Khyr, Muslim Frenchwoman
Ironically, instead of helping some women integrate, the measure may keep them cloistered in their homes to avoid exposing their faces in public.
"I won't go out. I'll send people to shop for me. I'll stay home, very simply," said Oum Al Khyr, who wears a niqab that hides all but the eyes.
"I'll spend my time praying," said the single woman "over 45" who lives in Montreuil on Paris's eastern edge. "I'll exclude myself from society when I wanted to live in it."
The law banning the veil would take effect only after a six-month period.
Full veils 'not welcome': Sarkozy
The Interior Ministry estimates the number of women who fully cover themselves at some 1,900, with a quarter of them converts to Islam and two-thirds with French nationality.
The French parliament wasted no time in working to get a ban in place, opening an inquiry shortly after Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy said in June 2009 that full veils that hide the face are "not welcome" in France.
The bill calls for the equivalent of $198.75 Cdn in fines or citizenship classes for any woman caught covering her face, or both. It also carries stiff penalties for anyone such as husbands or brothers convicted of forcing the veil on a woman. The $39,750 fine and year in prison are doubled if the victim is a minor.
It was unclear, however, how authorities planned to enforce such a law.
"I will accept the fine with great pleasure," said Drider, vowing to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if she gets caught.