Editor’s Blog: France decides to ban the veil

Following months of arduous discussions the French Senate has voted to ban the wearing of any veil that covers the face in public spaces.

While broadly supported by the French people, critics have already begun to argue the decision could be incompatible with international human rights law and even the country’s own constitution.

Moreover, jittery tourism insiders have questioned the impact of the decision on the struggling market, with many concerned by a potential fall in the number of visitors from the Middle East when the ban comes into force in spring 2011.

While this seems unlikely in the mid-term, the decision to ban the veil does raise a number of interesting questions for one of the biggest inbound tourism destinations in the world.

Ban the Veil

So what exactly does the law passed by the Senate - by a vote of 246 to one – mean in principle?

In short the ban pertains to the burqa (a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face) and the niqab (a full-face veil that leaves an opening only for the eyes). However, the hijab (which covers the hair and neck, but not the face) and the chador (which covers the body, but not the face) are not banned by the new law.

The law imposes a fine of €150 and/or a citizenship course as punishment for wearing a face-covering veil. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa will be punishable by a year in prison or a €15,000 fine.

In justification the Senate said: “Given the damage it produces on those rules which allow the life in community, ensure the dignity of the person and equality between sexes, this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place.”

But, in practice, the law is likely to be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

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Authorities are unlikely to have the stomach for scenes of police forcing women to remove their veil in the street, or burqa wearers being dragged into custody.

Will veil wearers be forced to remove their garments at airport customs? Will the ban be proactively advertised overseas to warn incoming travellers? Will welders be prohibited from wearing face shields?

These are all practicalities which must be addressed by French authorities in order to create a workable law.

Timing

At a time when many European destinations are seeking to augment inbound visitor numbers, the French decision to ban women from wearing a veil in public seems counterintuitive.

France has been at the forefront of attempts to advertise itself to the Middle Eastern market, with visitors from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates actively courted by tourism officials.

A recent statement from tourism body Atout France explained: “Travellers from the Middle East are high contributors to the economy of France tourism in terms of their liberal spending habits and long stays and we believe their share in the global outbound flows to our country is as yet not unlocked fully.”

WTO statistics point to US$20bn in spending on outbound travels from the region, while Air France, also, has been looking to boost its profile, introducing new direct flights five times a week from Abu Dhabi to Paris earlier this year.

That the government would act to jeopardise these efforts has raised eyebrows in some quarters.

But, for the time being, it appears France has taken a principled stand at the expense of commerce.