French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered legislation that would ban women from wearing Islamic veils that fully cover the face and body in public places, the government said on Wednesday.
It is Sarkozy's first political action toward an outright ban, though he has repeatedly said such outfits oppress women and are not welcome in France, home to a firmly secular government. Government spokesman Luc Chatel said after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that the president decided the government should submit a bill to parliament in May on an overall ban on such veils "in all public places."
That ups the stakes in Sarkozy's push against veils such as the burqa and niqab and chador. Some in his own party have bristled at a full-out ban, and France's highest administrative body has questioned whether it would be constitutional.
Sarkozy insisted that "everything should be done so that no one feels stigmatized," according to Chatel. Sarkozy said the veils "do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women."
Chatel did not say how the new bill would affect a resolution already slated for discussion in parliament May 11 on ways of limiting the full veils.
France, nominally Roman Catholic, but also home to western Europe's largest Muslim population of at least 5 million. Very few French Muslim women wear face-hiding veils, but the issue has become a flashpoint of debate on national identity, the rights of religious groups in France's secular society and integration of France's immigrant populations.
Legislators and members of the government have been discussing ways to limit veils such as the burqa and niqab and chador for months. France banned Muslim head scarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols from classrooms in 2004.