France’s Burqa Ban Met With Scattered Protests and Arrests

BY Larisa Epatko  April 15, 2011 at 9:59 AM EDT

On Monday, France became the first country to make it illegal to wear full-face veils in public. The law generated intense debate over whether it was the right way to counter extremists, and whether other countries should do the same. Now, what remains to be seen is how evenly the law will be enforced.

A protest in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral earlier in the week led to the arrests of about a dozen veil-clad women — but they were arrested because they were protesting without a permit, rather than for wearing the veils. Several other women, however, were cited this week for wearing the veils.

One woman, Kenza Drider, tipped off reporters that she would be traveling by train from Avignon to Paris wearing her niqab. She was one of those arrested at the protest.

An estimated 5 million to 6 million Muslims live in France, and the French Interior Ministry estimates about 2,000 women wear the full-face veil, also known as the burqa or niqab.

The fine for wearing the face-covering veil is 150 euros (or about $215). Anyone found forcing a woman to wear a burqa or niqab faces fines of up to 30,000 euros (or $43,400) and a year in prison. For forcing a minor, the penalty doubles.

Police were given guidelines on how to handle the citations tactfully, including inviting — rather than ordering — people to lift their veils and providing a female police officer when one is requested, said Mildrade Cherfils, a GlobalPost reporter in Paris.

According to the law’s backers, the ban is not meant to target Muslims or Islam but anyone who uses any face covering, including masks and motorcycle helmets with visors, said Cherfils. If the law had explicitly discriminated against one group, it would not have cleared the Constitutional Council, she added.

“The idea is that you don’t cover your face in public in order to be identified for security reasons,” she said.

Nonetheless, the ban received international attention because of its religious implications. The debate also took on political overtones. Critics said the law was French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s attempts to win back votes from the far-right National Front party, which had become known for its strict nationalism and anti-immigration message.

In France, polls show people are concerned about the issues the ban raises, but not as much as they are about losing their jobs or cuts in services, Cherfils said. And once a law is passed, it could be forgotten, she said, noting that France’s 2004 ban on veils in schools prompted little public reflection or assessments of impacts.

The next big question will be how this new veil ban is enforced, particularly among tourists to whom the law also applies, said Cherfils.

During debate over the law, skeptics asked if it would be enforced the same for someone shopping on the Champs-Élysées as another shopping in a less prominent neighborhood, she said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how those differences play out in terms of the enforcement.”

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