Burqa Ban in France Gets Final Approval; Similar Bans Spreading Across Europe     Print Email

(October 13)  The Conseil Constitutionnel, France’s top legal authority and guardian of the constitution, approved a law last week previously passed by both chambers of the French parliament banning the wearing of full-face veils in public places. While many expected the Constitutional Council to overturn the law, it ruled instead that the law "conforms" with the constitution and does not encroach on civil liberties, so long as the law does not apply to public places of worship where it could violate the practice of religious freedom.

The ban, set to be implemented early next year, will impose a €150 fine on women who cover their faces in public and may also require a course in citizenship. Anyone forcing a woman to wear the full veil could be fined €30,000 and face criminal penalties of a year in jail. The ban is another manifestation of the increasingly strong anti-immigrant feeling in France and in Europe.  See recent  European Affairs piece for other aspects of the issue. Although the text of the law does not make explicit reference to Islam or the burqa, the Islamic full-face veil, its critics claim it unfairly targets Muslim women and violates individual freedom. In its defense, President Nicolas Sarkozy and other French politicians have promoted the law as a protection of women's rights against a symbol of oppression. The ban is expected to be challenged in the European Court of Justice as a violation of the European human rights law.

Other countries in Europe have considered similar legislation. In Belgium, the lower house of parliament voted almost unanimously, with two abstentions, in favor of a burqa ban in April 2010, but the coalition government collapsed before the Senate could debate the issue. The law now awaits the formation of a new government before it can be discussed further. In the Netherlands, the new governing coalition comprised of two center-right parties have agreed to ban burqas and niqabs in public places in return for the support of the far-right Freedom Party minority government headed by Geert Wilders, a move that has been approved by the Dutch queen.

Meanwhile in Italy, MPs led by Umberto Bossi of the anti-immigration Northern League— part of Berlusconi's ruling right-wing coalition— recently proposed a similar bill to introduce the explicit prohibition of wearing the burqa or niqab in public. And although the Socialist-governed Spainish parliament rejected a national ban presented by the conservative opposition in July 2010, local bans have cropped up in Catalonia. Earlier this year, two small Catalan towns, Lerida and El Vendrell, outlawed burqas and niqabs and in June 2010 the city of Barcelona banned face coverings in public buildings.

Other European countries including Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Bosnia have also discussed the controversial issue of a burqa ban, a debate that marks an upswing in a trend of Islamophobia sweeping the European continent and that raises the question, who’s next?


By Juliana Knapp