France's Socialists want to soften burqa ban
PARIS (Reuters) - France's opposition Socialists on Tuesday challenged a government plan to ban full Islamic veils in all public places, proposing a milder bill based on practicality rather than values.
The government is expected to present legislation next week to outlaw face-covering veils on the grounds that they are demeaning to women, even though legal experts have warned that such a prohibition could violate religious freedom.
"What we want is efficiency rather than symbolism," Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialists' group in parliament, told reporters.
The Socialist draft says that everyone must keep their face uncovered when using public services to permit identification.
In practice, this could mean women would have to remove face veils to pick up their children from school, or during wedding ceremonies at town halls.
Several human rights organisations have spoken out against a general prohibition on veils such as the burqa and the niqab.
A committee of the Council of Europe -- a European human rights body based in Strasbourg -- also said on Tuesday it opposed such a ban, which is being discussed in France as well as Belgium.
The Socialist proposal could circumvent concerns over religious discrimination by focusing on security and pragmatism.
"We believe that banning it from the public sphere... risks stigmatising people and above all being totally ineffective because it would be unenforceable," Socialist leader Martine Aubry told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Francois Fillon to discuss the issue.
But she stressed the Socialists opposed full Islamic veils and did not want them in France.
The Council of Europe committee, whose position will be debated by the 47 member states, said full veils "could be a threat to women's dignity", but women should be free to wear them if they wanted to.
However, the committee said legal restrictions might be justified for security purposes and in certain situations where the wearer's face had to be seen.
The idea of a ban was first floated last year by French mayors who said more and more women were turning up fully veiled at schools and in town halls, and refusing to show their faces even for the purpose of identification.
(Additional reporting by Laure Bretton, editing by Paul Taylor)
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