France is considering passing a law that would mean women who wear the burqa or niqab in public would face a £700 fine. French MPs will vote on the proposal later this month; the fine would apply to anyone "whose face is fully covered in public". Jean-François Copé, parliamentary leader of Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP group, told Le Figaro that the proposed law was based on sexual equality and public safety considerations, not on religious ones.

"We spoke to religious and secular figures, who all confirmed [the burqa] was not a religious prescription. Wearing the full body veil is about extremists who want to test the republic," he said.

It is already illegal to wear a headscarf in French state schools (the law came into effect in 2004 — you'll remember the furore); the French constitution specifically requires the separation of church and state. So even in a country that is nominally Catholic, there are no prayers at school, no crucifixes on state-school walls, no religious assemblies and so on.

This last bit seems perfectly sensible but the headscarf issue raised all sorts of questions — the law is opaquely worded and refers only to "ostentatious" religious symbols: would a Sikh boy in a French state school be required to remove his topknot and cut his hair, for instance? Would a Jewish child not be allowed his yarmulke? Would somebody who was vegetarian on religious grounds be offered no alternative to meaty school lunches? Or was the law just against Muslims, adherents to the second largest religion in France?

Read the complete original version of this item...