A parliamentary panel that wants Muslim women to stop veiling their faces recommended Tuesday that France ban such garb in public facilities, including hospitals and mass transit, and a leading panel member said he foresees such an interdiction by the end of 2010.
The nearly 200-page report contains a panoply of measures intended to dissuade women from wearing all-enveloping veils in France. It also recommends refusing residence cards and citizenship to anyone with visible signs of a "radical religious practice."
However, there is no call to outlaw such garments — worn by a tiny minority of Muslims — in private areas and in the street. A full ban was the major issue that divided the 32-member, multiparty panel which ultimately heeded warnings that a full ban risked being deemed unconstitutional and could even cause trouble in a country where Islam is the second-largest religion.
The report, which culminates six months of hearings, was formally presented to the president of the National Assembly, the lower house, Bernard Accoyer, and made public.
Conservative lawmaker Eric Raoult, the panel's No. 2 member, said later that he foresaw a limited ban in the public sector "before the end of the year."
"We need maybe six months or a little more to explain what we want," he told The Associated Press, adding that "by the end of 2010" there could be such an interdiction.
Accoyer was more vague but told a news conference that "we can certainly find solutions in a brief time."
A gateway to extremism
Universities, hospitals, public transport and post offices would be among areas included in a limited ban on the all-encompassing veil.
As envisaged by the panel, such a ban would require that people show their faces when entering the facility and "keep the face uncovered throughout their presence," the report says.
Failure to do so would result "in a refusal to deliver the service demanded." That means, for instance, that a woman seeking state funds commonly accorded to mothers would walk away empty-handed.
A parliamentary resolution condemning such garb, with no legal weight and the easiest measure to pass, would be likely to precede concrete initiatives.
The veil is widely viewed in France as a gateway to extremism, an insult to gender equality and an offense to France's secular foundation. A 2004 French law bans Muslim headscarves from primary and secondary school classrooms.
The language in the report was carefully chosen in an effort to avoid offending France's estimated 5 million Muslims — the largest such population in western Europe — and accusations of discrimination. Muslim leaders have already complained that the debate over the full veil coupled with an ongoing debate on French national identity has left some Muslims feeling their religion is becoming a government target.
The panel went to work, taking testimony from more than 200 experts and others, after President Nicolas Sarkozy said in June that veils that hide the face are "not welcome" on French territory.
Such veils are thought to be worn by only several thousand Muslim women who, most often, pin a "niqab" across their faces, hiding all but the eyes. Worn with a long, dark robe, such clothing is customarily associated with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
The report puts an emphasis on educating women who wear the robes in France about the rules of the Republic.
Any action on the report would not come before March regional elections.