PARIS President Nicolas Sarkozy urged French Muslims Wednesday not to feel hurt or stigmatised by a planned ban on full face veils that will fine women who hide their faces and jail men if they force them to cover up.
Sarkozy told a cabinet meeting, which approved the bill that could become law this autumn, that France was an old nation that could not allow its vision of women's dignity and public order to be violated by the veil.
Only a tiny minority of Muslim women in Europe wear full veils, called niqabs or burqas, but their numbers are growing. The Belgian parliament has already begun debating a ban there and could also impose it in the coming months.
France has reaped criticism from Muslim groups and rights advocates for the planned "burqa ban," which Sarkozy called for last year to counter Islamist views among some Muslims.
"This is a decision one doesn't take lightly," he said. "Nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I'm thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected."
Sarkozy said France was "an old nation united around a certain idea of personal dignity, particularly women's dignity, and of life together. It's the fruit of centuries of efforts."
The country's top legal advisory body, the Council of State, has twice warned that a complete ban on veils in public would be unconstitutional, but Sarkozy said the government had decided "in good conscience" that it must outlaw them.
"The government and parliament must shoulder their political and moral responsibility," he told the cabinet meeting, even if the judicial branch had a different opinion.
"WOMEN ARE VICTIMS"
Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the bill foresees a six-month grace period to allow Muslim leaders and groups to persuade covered women that their veils violate French values.
After that, women veiled in public must pay a 150-euro fine or take "citizenship lessons," she told Le Parisien daily. Anyone forcing them to veil -- presumably husbands, fathers or brothers -- will face one year in jail and a 15,000-euro fine.
"As we see it, these women are victims. It would be ideal if these sanctions didn't have to be imposed on them."
The burqa issue has strained relations between France's majority population and its five million-strong Muslim minority, the largest in Europe. Muslim graves have been desecrated and a mosque and halal butcher's shop shot at in recent weeks.
A woman was fined for driving while veiled last month. On Saturday, another had her veil torn off during a dispute in a clothes shop. Both were converts to Islam, a group to whom veiling seems to appeal more than to women from Muslim families.
The woman in the shop incident, a former practising Catholic named Elodie, told Europe 1 radio her Muslim husband, of Algerian origin, opposed the veil.
"This is not my submission to a man, but to God," she said. "If the law is passed, either I won't go out any more or I'll move to Saudi Arabia."
Alliot-Marie defended the plan to outlaw veils completely in public, instead of just in public services such as post offices or job centres, as opposition Socialists had proposed.
"It's clearer this way, otherwise where would the ban begin or end?" she asked. "Is a bank a public or a private service?"
She also said some Muslim countries outlawed full face veils and they were even banned in the Islamic holy city of Mecca.
A Saudi Information Ministry official told Reuters in Riyadh veils were not required in Mecca but many Saudi women there wore them. Many Muslim women from abroad cover their hair but not their faces when they come for the annual haj pilgrimage.
(Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Riyadh; editing by Andrew Roche)