View a slideshow of the always controversial burqa.
The law: In 2004, France instituted a controversial ban on the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in schools -- a law that was widely interpreted as targeting Islamic headscarves. More recently President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party has begun a push to also ban the burqa (a garment that covers a woman's entire face and body, leaving only a screen for the eyes) and the niqab (a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes open) in all public spaces in France. The parliament passed a nonbinding resolution on May 11 in support of such a ban.
The debate: France is the European country with the largest Muslim minority population (6 percent, or 4 million citizens). The proposed burqa ban has opened difficult questions about national identity and the place of religion in society. Sarkozy was quoted in June 2009 as saying "the burqa is not welcome in France" and has since argued that it is a tool for the suppression of women.
A parliamentary commission, which concluded earlier this year, recommended a partial ban in spaces like hospitals and on public transportation. In an attempt to minimize the controversy surrounding the legislative effort, Jean-François Copé, leader of the UMP party in parliament, argued last week that the ban is based on security concerns ("the visibility of the face in the public sphere ... is essential to our security and is a condition for living together"), not religious discrimination.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked the Council of State, a body that provides legal advice to the executive branch, to examine whether a full ban would be constitutional. The council found that such a law would most likely violate the French Constitution and could be challenged in court. However, it also found that a partial ban on face-covering garments could stand in certain "high-risk" places for security reasons. (A similar law is already on the books in Italy, where a woman was recently fined 500 euros for wearing a niqab in public.) Nonetheless, Copé says he will continue to pursue a full ban of the burqa in France.
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