Muslim Attire Under Intense Debate In France

Few other countries has been so involved in the debate over Muslim dress as France. The strictly secular country has already banned the wearing of a full veil in public buildings and state schools, but now a proposed new law could prohibit women from wearing the naqib or burka in public places. Host Michel Martin talks to NPR reporter Eleanor Beardsley about what is pushing the French government to act so swiftly.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the question of Islamic extremism remains in the news. We ask: Can those who have been attracted to radical movements be persuaded to leave them? We'll talk with two people who've been studying so-called de-radicalization programs. That's a little later.

But first, we go to France, where the debate over how the state relates to people who practice the most traditional form of Islam have once again engulfed the country.

The immediate issue is the wearing of the niqab. That's the full-body covering worn by some Islamic women that leaves only a slot for the eyes. For some people, the wearing of the niqab is a radical act.

French parliamentary leader Jean-Francois Cope of the ruling UMP Party, submitted a draft law this week that bans the covering of the face in all public places. The wearing of the veil has been banned in state schools and public buildings since 2004.

France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, some five million people and growing, but less than 2,000 women wear the full-body covering. So why has the issue ignited such a heated discussion?

To talk more about this, we called reporter Eleanor Beardsley. She joins us on the phone from Paris. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Thank you. It's a pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So Eleanor, we've mentioned that it is believed that only a small number of women wear the niqab, but do we know any more about who these women are? Do they tend to be immigrants? Do they tend to be French nationals?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the government - actually, you mentioned 2,000. By the government's own commission, they said only 367 women wore the burqa or the niqab. The government says 80 percent of them are French, as in, I don't know, converted French women, or - and they say it's not an immigrant issue.

I think some of them probably are French, but other groups have put it at maybe 20 percent or 25 percent. I think these are probably recent immigrants and some French, probably a mix.

MARTIN: Well, you spoke with Jean-Fran´┐Żois Cope of the ruling UMP Party, who's advancing this idea that this should be banned for public wearing, and here's what he had to say. Here it is.

Mr. JEAN-FRANCOIS COPE (UMP Party, France): The two reasons why we have to implement this legislation is, first of all, to respect the women, the rights of women, and second, it's a question of security. Who can imagine tomorrow that in a country like ours, people can just walk everywhere in the country -not only on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, but also in other cities - with a burqa without the possibility for us to recognize the face?

MARTIN: How is this argument being received, Eleanor?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it flared up this summer in France, when Sarkozy, President Sarkozy said that the burqa was not welcome on French soil. And, of course, people said, but, you know, not many people are wearing the burqa. This is, you know, creating problems where none exist, and then there was this commission who studied it.

But then it's flared back up. And, you know, it's interesting because everyone is kind of against the burqa, even the Muslims. I mean, there's very few women who wear it. I mean, I heard somebody talking about, what are good Muslims? What is good Islam? It seems like France has good Islam, I mean, and Muslims are very moderate here. There's a lot of people wearing the veil, but the veil, you know, you could wear jeans with it. It's a far cry from the burqa. Nobody really wants to wear the burqa. But I think the Muslims feel like that just having the debate at all is stigmatizing them.

And then, you know, French people agree the burqa us not a great thing and we dont want to see it everywhere in France, but is it really worth having this debate and having - making a law against it? Won't that just create problems where none exist? And, you know, there's these regional elections coming up in March in France, and lot of people are saying this is just great campaign fodder. The government wants to just, you know, use this to attract votes, especially from the right.

MARTIN: Is there any religious liberty principle in France that this conflicts with? For example, I mean, in the United States it's very hard to imagine somebody banning a particular item of clothing. People have tried. You know, this whole question of saggy pants has come up in some jurisdictions, it's -that sort of thing. But particular pieces of clothing that have religious meaning, is there any religious liberty protected in France that this would conflict with? Or is this really a matter of - does the state have the authority to do this, is, I guess, my question.

BEARDSLEY: Well, all religions have complete freedom to practice here, and Jean-Francois Cope emphasized, this is not against religion. We respect religions in France. And you can't ban clothing in France. And he also says the burqa is not clothing. His point is that this - he says no religious authorities - and theyve obviously consulted a wide group of religious Islamic authorities. No Islamic authorities say that you have to wear the burqa. And he says, you know, you can practice your religion, but this is about - there's one thing in France that is very cherished - and the Muslims cherish it as well, everybody does - the Republican values, the values of the French Republic. And first and foremost is this separation of church and state.

So while youre absolutely allowed to practice your religion, the laws of the state come above all the other laws. So what he's saying is this is about respect. The burqa is not clothing. When you wear the burqa, youre making a choice. Youre presenting a position, and that position is not compatible with the values of the republic. I mean, he says what if a policeman stops you and wants to see your I.D.? Who are you? And they gave a good example, actually. A mother comes to pick up her child at preschool, do we know that that's really the mother if we can't see her?

MARTIN: It's an interesting question, and we sure do appreciate your reporting on it for us. Eleanor Beardsley is a reporter working in France. She joined us from Paris.

We thank you so much.

BEARDSLEY: Great to be with you.

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