’The burqa is not welcome in France.”
–  Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy intention to rid France of facial coverings worn by Muslim women was realized on Tuesday when the French Senate voted to outlaw all such veils in public spaces. The vote is regarded as eliminating a threat to France’s secular values and another step towards integrating Europe’s largest Muslim population.

burka-france32The legislation passed by 246 votes to one with most Socialist Party deputies abstaining. France’s lower legislative chamber, the National Assembly, had already unanimously approved of the measure last May with 434 votes cast for the resolution. It now only remains for France’s Constitutional Council, which reviews all legislation for constitutional weaknesses, to give its stamp of approval for the law to come into effect.

“The full veil is not a piece of clothing but a mask worn permanently that constitutes a threat to our society. We cannot let the full veil cover the face of our Republic,” said Jean-Francois Cope, leader of Sarkozy’s ruling center-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)), in the National Assembly after last May’s vote.

The new legislation would see violators fined a maximum of $190. Offenders would also be required to take a “citizenship” course on republican values. But until the legislation comes into effect next spring, the government will engage in mediation sessions with women who continue to wear facial coverings.

The garments worn by Muslim women associated with the face’s complete concealment are the burqa and the niqab. They are both head-to-toe, body-encompassing robes. But while the niqab leaves a slit for the eyes, burqas partially obstruct their wearer’s vision with a bar-like grill, causing some French to nickname them “mobile prisons.” Sarkozy denounced the burqa last year, regarding its banning as a question of dignity and freedom for women and not a religious problem.

“We cannot allow that, in our country, there are captive women behind bars who are shut out from social life and robbed of any identity,” Sarkozy said.

The heaviest penalties under the new legislation, though, are reserved for those who encourage a woman to conceal their faces. It is believed many of the estimated 2,000 Muslim women in France who cover their faces do so under pressure from Salafist fundamentalists, who are most often their husbands, fathers or brothers. A Moroccan woman, for example, who never wore a burqa in her native country, was refused French citizenship in 2008 after donning one in France at the behest of her fundamentalist husband.

Mainstream Muslim groups in France have supported the Sarkozy government in its quest to eliminate the burqa and niqab from public areas. They have declared concealing the face “was not a prescription of the Koran” and said they will engage in “theological discussions” with Muslim women who wear the veil. These organisations were opposed, however, to passing any law forbidding facial coverings.

“This would cause a feeling of injustice to arise, even among the Muslims hostile to the full covering,” said Mohammad Mouassi, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith .

The Muslims in France most hostile to the new law are the Salafists, a fundamentalist stream similar to the Wahhabis. They regard France’s mainstream Muslim leaders as “ignorant”, even “infidels.” The Salafists only number, it is estimated, between 30,000 and 50,000 of France’s five million Muslims but say they are ready to defy the new law. Provocations staged by Salafistes involving veil-wearing women are almost a certainty.

Unsurprisingly, Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had already threatened retaliation if the law was passed. The first indication of possible trouble from that direction occurred the evening of the vote when the area around the Eiffel Tower and the Saint Michel subway station had to be evacuated due to a false bomb threat.

In the face of the fundamentalists’ hostility, enforcing the new law could represent a major problem. French police are wary of enforcement in the violence-wracked and crime-ridden Muslim suburbs surrounding French cities where serious anti-government riots have taken place and where existing tensions are easily inflamed. Arresting and fining veiled Muslim women will be a delicate operation that may contain hidden dangers. French officials believe, however, that since the banning of religious symbols in schools in 2004, including the Muslim head scarf, did not cause any major social difficulties, enforcement of the face covering ban should also occur smoothly.

France’s ban on Islamic facial coverings is part of the strategy adopted after the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the Danish cartoon riots in 2005. Disturbed by the lack of integration of their Muslim populations and the anti-civilization spreading in their countries, European governments began legislating against anti-European values, outlawing, for example, the head scarf, child marriages, polygamy and female genital mutilation.

Polls have shown the majority of French people, including many Muslims, support the ban and are correct in doing so. Those women who wear the burqa are making a political statement that they belong to a radical religious elite who do not want to live as part of French society but rather manifest their rejection of it by covering their faces. The facial covering is a symbol of the power of political Islam and of the fundamentalists that want to divide and weaken French society.

Critics of the ban say the Islamic veil issue is peripheral in comparison with other problems concerning France’s Muslim population such as the almost complete lack of law and order in the Muslim suburbs where French society and European values no longer exist. Even a communist deputy in the National Assembly, Andre Gerin, who was a mayor of one such suburb, believes the battle against Islamic fundamentalism “has only just begun.

“The burqa is only the tip of the iceberg. . .Islamism truly threatens us.”