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Canadian province set to limit use of Muslim veils

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian province of Quebec, where tension over the assimilation of immigrants is rising, plans to ban Muslim women from receiving all official services if they have their faces covered.

Legislation unveiled by the provincial Liberal government on Wednesday would refuse education, day care and nonemergency healthcare to women wearing full face veils. The law would also apply to those working in the public sector.

Premier Jean Charest said the predominantly French-speaking province of 7.5 million people had to strike a balance between respecting the rights of individuals while ensuring Quebec remained open and welcoming.

“We are clearly indicating limits that cannot be breached: respecting equality between men and women (and) the religious neutrality of the state ... and interacting with the state with an uncovered face,” he said.

The legislation would affect women wearing the niqab -- a face veil with an eye opening -- as well as the burqa, a full veil with a slit for the eyes. The bill said people dealing with the provincial government needed to have uncovered faces for reasons of security and identification.

“We’re basically saying that here in Quebec, we receive and give services with our face uncovered. That’s an affirmation that is novel,” said Immigration Minister Katherine Weil.

The Liberals have a majority of seats in Quebec’s National Assembly and would have no trouble adopting the law.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday vowed to bring in legislation banning the burqa on the grounds that it was an insult to women.

Muslim advocates said the bill was a gross overreaction, noting that very few women in Quebec wear full face veils.

“In many ways the bill represents a knee-jerk reaction by government officials in order to appease a certain sector of our society, at the expense of others and at the expense of our basic fundamental rights,” said Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal.

The bill was introduced after three years of sometimes heated debate over the rights of immigrants, caused in part by the increasing number of newcomers from Muslim nations.

Quebec is home to around 850,000 immigrants and welcomes 40,000 new ones a year, according to official figures. In the 1950s, more than 90 percent were of European origin, but that figure had fallen to 21 percent by 2007.

A commission recommended in 2008 that Quebec must do more to combat discrimination and help immigrants integrate.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty