Only 367 women in France wear Islamic veils that cover their faces and bodies, a newspaper reported on Wednesday, undermining the position of politicians who are pushing for a ban on the garments.
A panel of legislators is studying the issue of whether the number of women wearing such veils is on the rise and why. The panel is expected to say in coming months whether it backs a ban on the veils in public places, as advocated by some politicians.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has stopped short of backing a ban, but has said the veils were "not welcome" in France.
The influential newspaper Le Monde said that in light of the tiny number of women concerned, the idea of a ban should be dropped.
"Do we need to legislate for fewer than 400 people, legislate for an exception? ... Given the risks, including the stigmatization of Islam ... the answer is no," it said in an editorial.
In France, there is near unanimity against veils that hide a woman's face. These are seen as a violation of women's rights, often imposed by fundamentalist men.
However, there are strong disagreements about whether it would be wise or helpful to legislate against the garments.
Le Monde said it had seen reports by two separate domestic intelligence agencies that both found only a tiny minority of Muslim women wore such veils. One of the reports gave a figure: 367 women in the whole country.
France has Europe's biggest Muslim community, estimated at 5 million.
Statistics on how many women wear facial veils are usually not available in France, which is wary of surveys of people's religious practices because of the ideal of equality.
This means that until now, the issue of Islamic veils has been debated with much passion but little hard evidence.
Le Monde said the intelligence reports it had seen had been passed to government and would form part of the parliamentary debate into the issue of the veils.
Critics of the idea of a ban have said it would stigmatize Islam and would put moderate Muslims on the defensive, pushing them into defending the veils as a symbol of their religion even though they may not favor wearing the garments themselves.
The intelligence reports cited by Le Monde suggest that the reality of women who cover their faces in France, and why, is quite different from the description given by politicians.
The reports say most women who wear full veils are under 30 and do so to make a political point. Outraged by what they see as widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, they want to defy society and, in some cases, their own relatives.
French converts to Islam account for around a quarter of wearers, the newspaper said, quoting the reports.
The intelligence reports say that the vast majority of Muslims in France reject full-body veils and see those who defend it as fundamentalists.
The debate about facial veils echoes a controversy that raged for a decade in France about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class. Eventually, a law was passed in 2004 banning pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of any religion at state schools.
The law remains controversial. Critics say it has stigmatized Muslims at a time when the country should be fighting discrimination in the job and housing markets that has caused a rift between mainstream society and some youths from an immigrant background.
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