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Veiled fears: France's push to keep women's faces uncovered

A woman holds her French passport during a press conference in Montreuil, east of Paris, this past May as Muslims speak out against a proposed French law to ban the wearing of burka-style veils in public places.

Remy de la Mauviniere/The Associated Press

The National Assembly of France last week debated a bill that would ban burka-style Islamic veils in public. Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said that hiding your face from your neighbours is a violation of French values.

In Canada, Quebec is also considering a bill that would require women to remove face coverings if they want to work in the public sector or do business with government officials.

Philippe Portier, a Sorbonne expert, has been a keen observer of the debate on the anti-burka law. Director of the Groupe Société, Réligion, Laicité at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, he has given advice to the High Council of Integration, a government advisory body.

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What do we know about the women who wear a full face veil in France?

They are young, between 20 and 30 years old; for the most part, they are often married, and they are often French. They are not recent immigrants and 40 per cent of them are converts from Christian communities. The number of women wearing it has increased in the last two or three years, but there are still very few - only 2,000 or maybe 2,500. Since many of them are converted, they want to show a deep attachment to their religion.

If there are so few Muslim women covering their faces, why are the French so concerned about it?

The French particularity is our deeply rooted French Republican tradition, which dates back to the French Revolution. We have always felt a sort of mistrust toward religion, especially when the religion seems not to be liberal. So when the French see people wearing a full veil, we think these people are not really free from some very strong, superstitious and regressive beliefs. And we have a strong temptation to emancipate these women from the orthodoxy in which they are involved.

The toughest sanctions in the law are reserved for anyone who forces a woman to cover her face. The government says that's because it wants to protect women, not discriminate against them. Is the government sincere or is that all window-dressing?

I think the government is sincere. In France, just like in Europe, there is a real attachment to egalitarian beliefs and the equality of men and women.

There doesn't seem to be any question the law will pass. Will that be the end of it?

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I don't think there will be any problems after the law is passed. It may be too strong to say the full veil will disappear, but Muslims accepted the law that banned the head scarf in state schools without any difficulty.

Where does the French government think Islam fits in French society?

The French Republic is not against Islam, it is against a certain sort of radical Islam. In fact, you can see a real evolution of legislation and political practices since the 1980s. The government wants to be more open than before to the Muslim religion. For instance, it is now much easier to build a mosque. So French policy is "no" to radical Islam, "yes" to an Islam of France.

We've had some of this debate in Canada. Has France had less success in integrating Islam?

You don't have the same political philosophy. The republican philosophy is very French and we think the freedom of the subject as an autonomous person is more important than freedom of religion. [Canada has]a liberal philosophy, which thinks that individuals must choose their own way of life and in that way of life the freedom of religion is quite important.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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This interview has been condensed and edited

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