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France, Belgium: Battle Over the Burqa

  • April 24th, 2010
  • Posted by EUEditor

burqa-eyes.jpgCOMMENTARY: Battle lines are being drawn in France over the proposal of President Nicolas Sarkozy to ban the wearing of the full face veil, the burqa or niqab, anywhere in public.

The same debate is going on  in  Belgium – a distraction from  a fresh political crisis there.


Ministers in the French government are scheduled to meet next month to consider the move against the full-body and full-face covering garments worn by some muslim women – those exposing only eyes to public view, or the yet more extreme face mask.

burqa-2.jpgMr Sarkozy and his backers have declared the garments an “attack on the dignity of women” and indicative of a rejection of French values.


Opponents of the ban argue that even in France, with a very large Islamic population, as few as 2000 women dress in the burqa or niqab; and they argue that a ban would be an affront to religious and civil liberties.

Public opinion polls show a high degree of scepticism, enforcing claims that the move by the conservative government is in part a bid to bring back right-wing voters, who have been rifting away from it.

The offence, if created, will be a misdemeanor  attracting a fine of around EU20 (A$32,, 23.4.10), but bound to face many challenges, including a possible case to test  it under the constitution

(Two police officers at Nantes this week experimented with the idea, imposing an on-the-spot fine on a woman for driving dangerously, because obscuring her own vision with her veil; she’s refusing to pay).

burqa-1.jpgInternational reaction is predictable: government leaders in  Iran have complained the French initiative would mean women were “not permitted to perform their religious duties”.

A more limited ban against girls wearing a religious scarf  to school, since 2004  has been effectively enforced in France; aimed at forbidding all  conspicuous religious symbols in schools, it is supported by cultural arguments endorsing humanistic principles and a tradition of secularism in public life. Several Islamic schools have been opened in efforts to circumvent it.


A law against the burqa, similar to that in France, is being proposed in Belgium, although legislative programs in that country are being held up by the collapse of the governing coalition, this week.

The Flemish Liberal party in the five-party formation pulled out, following a dispute over the rights of French and Flemish-speaking citizens in local councils.

The latest in a series of failures in the political system in recent years, the break-down may bring on early elections.

The political and governmental impasse in Belgium looks chronic, continually raising questions as to whether the “national” state can, or should survive — a log-jam of wills, francophone versus   flemish, left-versus-centre-versus-right, discord over the future of multi-lingual (yet increasingly francophone) Brussels.
The latest crisis, this week,  comes at an especially difficult time, as Belgium is about to take its rotational turn in the Presidency of the European Union, from the end of July – and needs a government of its own, to be able to do that.


AFP, Paris, “France to outlaw veil”, 23.4.10.

Bruce Chumley, Paris, “French move closer to banning burqa”, Time, 23.4.10. …, (23.4.10).

ISNA, Iranian Students News Agency, Teheran, “Iran criticizes French bill on full veil”, 22.4.10., (23.4.10).,,