The Act prohibiting the concealing of the face in public was adopted, in the same terms and by a large majority, by the French National Assembly on 13 July and then by the Senate on 14 September 2010. It was passed on 11 October 2010 after the Constitutional Council judged its provisions to be in line with the Constitution in its ruling 2010-613 of 7 October.
The prohibition on concealing the face entered into force six months after the Act was passed, i.e. on 11 April 2011. This six-month period was granted by the legislature to allow the authorities time to organise and launch a public awareness campaign.
Defending liberty and gender equality – The French Constitution and legislation guarantees women the same rights as men in all areas of the law. The legislature ruled that through the voluntary or involuntary concealment of their faces, women are cut off from the socializing element which allows them to relate to other citizens, placing them in a situation of exclusion and inferiority. By excluding them from mixing in public, the full-face veil prevents them from being full members of society solely because of their gender. This practice therefore runs contrary to the principle of gender equality. It is perceived as demonstrating the withdrawal of the wearer into a specific community or a refusal to live in an open society.
This aim to protect women from extreme behaviour leading to the suppression of their personality also justifies the addition of a section on "inciting a person to conceal the face" in the chapter of the Criminal Code dealing with "attacks on the dignity of the human being", punishing anyone compelling another person to conceal their face because of that other person’s sex.
Measures necessary for public security – Even before this Act, the demands of public security and the need to be able to identify individuals already justified a prohibition on concealing the face in certain places such as public service premises (e.g. polling stations, examination centres, town halls, courts), when complying with certain administrative formalities (e.g. marriage, trials) or in places where certain specific restrictive measures apply (e.g. airports, banks, railway stations, jewellers’ shops, etc). To provide people with greater protection from practices which could be a danger to public security, and in the interests of clarity, the legislature has extended this prohibition to all public spaces.
Maintaining public order - Public order covers not only the demands of security, but also the rules of sociability, social intercourse and interaction which characterise the spirit of the republican social pact. The aim of the Act is to ensure respect for the values of the Republic and the requirements of "living together" which are at the heart of our societal project. In public, the rights of whosoever chooses to present to the world a particular external appearance must take into account the rights of those confronted with this appearance. Concealment of the face does not only affect the rights and liberties of those who choose to cover their face, but also the rights and liberties of the people whom they will encounter in the public space. Yet the rules of our republican pact cannot be applied differently based on the location: only a general prohibition will allow them to be fully preserved. The Constitutional Council approved this approach, stating that the legislature had succeeded in reconciling the maintenance of public order and the protection of human rights.
Respecting secularism – The prohibition on concealing the face is not based on the principle of secularism, which only applies to public institutions and their staff, and which established through the 2004 Act a prohibition on conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. The issue of concealing the face has less to do with secularism than social intercourse in public, where certain items of clothing can hinder interaction with other people. The Act prohibiting the concealing of the face in public nevertheless respects the three principles on which secularism is based: neutrality of the State, respect for pluralism and religious freedom.
Respect for freedom of religion – The Act prohibiting the concealing of the face in public does not call into question the freedom to exercise religious worship. France guarantees the freedom of religious practices and expression. The freedom of conscience and religion and the freedom for all people to express their religion or their convictions will continue to be upheld, insofar as they are fundamental freedoms written into our Constitution and into the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Respect for citizens of the Muslim faith – The Act, whose provisions are of a general nature, is not aimed at any religious community. The work to implement the Act was carried out in close cooperation with the religious authorities, in particular the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (CFCM, or French Council of the Muslim Faith), who noted that the terms adopted by the legislature are of a general nature (concealing of the face) and do not refer to any specific garment or religion.
Different reactions – With regard to national contexts as well as the positions taken by international institutions such as the Council of Europe and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, certain arguments could be further highlighted.
For example, the respect for religious freedom is considered to be a priority in the United States and some European countries (Denmark, Netherlands, etc.), while protecting public security is a requirement which is well understood by our partners in the Middle East. Conversely, the Middle-Eastern partners refute our use of the concept of "dignity of the human being" to justify punishment for compelling another person to conceal their face, while the notions of “secularism” and “republican pact” remain misunderstood, especially in the United States.
It is, however, essential to make mention of all the principles which were the basis for the legislature’s approach, so as not to risk resorting to a rhetoric of relativity of cultural customs comprised of allowing each country to adapt the universal Charters as they see fit. Consequently, it should be recalled each time that public security measures are taken in strict observance of the fundamental principles of freedom and equality.
Information available in the consulates – Explanatory documents are available on-line at France Diplomatie (http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/) and are available to our consulates, where they can be read upon request by travellers before their trip.
Further information is also available at the French Government’s official site on this issue (http://www.visage-decouvert.gouv.fr/)