French bid to ban veils worries allies, tourists

  • Sat Sep 4th, 2010 10:11pm
  • News

Associated Press

PARIS — Protests in Pakistan, al-Qaida warnings, skittish Muslim tourists: France’s plan to do away with burqa-style veils is already reverberating far beyond its borders.

A bill to outlaw face veils, aimed at upholding French republican values, is expected to win Senate approval this month. If it passes this key hurdle, French diplomats will face a tough task ensuring the ban doesn’t alienate governments, deter devout foreign shoppers loaded with cash, or provoke Islamist terrorists.

It’s a complex challenge for a country that works relentlessly to preserve its global diplomatic influence, its cherished secular ideals, and its status as the world’s top tourist destination.

Ensuring gender equality, woman’s dignity and security are the official reasons France wants to outlaw Islamic veils, most often worn as “niqabs” that hide all but the eyes. Authorities insist the global ban — which would include visiting foreigners — is not anti-Muslim.

But that message has failed to convince some governments, be they Western or France’s traditional Arab allies, or trickle down to moneyed travelers who swarm Paris’ so-called Golden Triangle, a high-priced shopping district centered around the Champs-Elysees.

That some other European countries like Belgium are considering similar legislation — and Muslim countries like Syria and Egypt have instituted their own limited bans on face veils — may help bolster the French argument, but not win the debate.

“When you’re a tourist, you want to go to places you feel you are welcome,” said Dalal Saif of Oman, a sultanate bordering Saudi Arabia, during a three-week summer visit to France.

Saif, whose work is tied to the oil industry, spent hours one day with his family selecting perfumes and cosmetics by the bagful at a Champs-Elysees store.

“If they feel unwelcome, France will lose this kind of revenue,” he said, adding that such a measure “infringes on (France’s) image as custodians, protectors of liberties.”

The number of visitors to Paris from the oil-rich Middle East was up nearly 30 percent in the first half of 2010 compared to last year, according to the Paris Tourism and Congress Office.

“I can see that many families will actually change destinations because of this,” said Saif, standing by his daughter, black-robed but bare-faced sister, and wife wearing a chartreuse head scarf.

Many Muslim tourists who wear face veils at home shed them for European vacations, instead donning stylish, often brightly colored headscarves, sometimes paired with big sunglasses.

But that choice doesn’t erase a sense that France is offending followers of Islam with its proposed veil ban.

Beyond such tensions, constitutional challenges await an eventual law. But the French are not about to budge. The nation’s concept of integration, in which ethnic or religious differences are subsumed by Frenchness, is the ultimate argument for making the face visible.

President Nicolas Sarkozy officially opened the debate in June 2009 when he told parliament that veils that hide the face “are not welcome” in France.