France's government on Thursday announced it would apply a proposed ban on face-covering Islamic veils to visiting tourists as well as residents, even as sceptisim mounted over the legality of the plan.
Junior family minister Nadine Morano said visitors would have to "respect the law" and uncover their faces, prompting critics to speculate whether Saudi luxury shoppers would be forced to unveil themselves on the glitzy Champs-Elysees.
"When you arrive in a country you have to respect the laws of that country," Ms. Morano said on France Info radio. "If I go to certain countries I'm also forced to respect the law."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday backed a strict public ban of the veil, commonly referred to in France as the burqa, eschewing more moderate proposals that focused on limits in state institutions such as schools and town halls.
The draft bill will be presented to the cabinet next month.
"Why should we accept (the veil) on the bus and not in the town hall?" Ms. Morano said. She repeated Mr. Sarkozy's line that the veil hurts the dignity of women and equality between the sexes.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Wednesday he was ready to take on a "legal risk" by supporting the ban, which could be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that it violates freedom of religion.
France's highest court has already warned the government that a complete ban could be unlawful.
If the European Court or domestic courts strike it down, Mr. Sarkozy would suffer his second constitutional defeat in the space of a few months -- late last year, his plan for a carbon tax was rejected because its many loopholes violated the principle of equality.
The French State Ombudsman, Jean-Paul Delevoye, worried that the law could result in difficult situations.
"I don't know what they're going to do with the Saudi women who go shopping on the Champs-Elysees," he said on French radio.
The opposition Socialists have repeatedly spoken out against full veils, but are doubtful about the effectiveness of the ban.
"I can't imagine policemen running through the streets to pull the veils off women," Socialist parliamentarian Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said on i-Tele television.
The government says women who wear all-covering veils, such as the Afghan burka or the niqab, would not be forced to take them off on the spot but would be asked for their name and address, and be sent a warning and a fine.
An estimated 2,000 women in France wear such veils. Since the idea of a ban was first floated last year, many women have publicly said that they want to cover up and are not forced into the practice by their husbands or families.
However, some feminists from France's poor, multi-ethnic suburbs say there is increasing pressure on young women to veil themselves, and that a ban could help strengthen their position.
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