World Bulletin / News Desk
France’s top legal body warned the government Tuesday that a complete ban on the burqa in the home of Europe’s largest Muslim minority may be illegal, according to French media.
"It appears to the State Council that a general and absolute ban on the full veil as such can have no incontestable judicial basis," the body said in a report submitted to Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
But it would be possible to “require that faces be uncovered in some places or for some procedures” involving interaction with the state or security officials, added the body, France 24 reported.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared on several occasions that full-face veils, known as burqas or niqabs, have no place in French society but has not made clear what practical steps the government might take.
The country has a history of hardline secularism, with church and state kept firmly apart. In 2004, the government of then-President Jacques Chirac placed a ban on conspicuous religious symbols, including headscarves, in public schools.
Fillon in January asked the Council of State, which advises on the preparation of new laws and orders, to look into the issue and give an opinion on the most effective judicial steps to outlaw the veils.
But in a report made public on Tuesday, it said introducing such a ban would threaten rights guaranteed under both the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Only a few hundred women in France are believed to wear full veils but many in both Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party as well as on parts of the political left see them as an affront to France's secular traditions.
The Council of State's report noted that authorities already had ample powers to require people to show their faces in schools, public buildings and offices as well as for identity checks and access to public services.
The Council of State's report underlines legal headaches surrounding any attempt to legislate about burqas and niqabs, let alone to deal with the public controversy over the issue.
The report added that public security, one of the main arguments given for outlawing the burqa, "could not justify a general ban of the full veil in itself, there being no specific problem associated with it in and of itself".
The French government is already facing internal dissent over a campaign to discuss national identity that has attracted accusations of racism, and a burqa law could be a difficult sell.