France puts no-veil law into practice

Willsher is a special correspondent.

France imposed a ban on wearing veils in public Monday, and within hours police detained two women who had covered their faces at an impromptu demonstration outside Notre Dame Cathedral.

Police said the women were not taken into custody for wearing veils but because the protest was unauthorized and they had refused to leave when asked. Two people who were not covering their faces also were detained.

The new law, which prohibits the wearing of a veil that covers the full face in public places such as parks, cinemas and schools, is the first of its kind to be enforced in Europe.


The measure makes no specific mention of Islam, but President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government promoted the law as a means of “protecting” women from being forced to wear full-face veils.

Those who defy the ban face a $216 fine and attendance at a “citizenship course.” A person who forces a woman to cover up through “abuse of authority or power” can be fined up to $43,000 -- double if the covered female is a minor -- and jailed for as long as a year.

France’s Muslim population is estimated at about 5 million, the largest in Europe. There are no exact figures on how many women wear a full veil, but there are believed to be fewer than 2,000.

A dozen women, including three wearing veils, and a handful of men took part in Monday’s protest in front of Notre Dame. They were vastly outnumbered by police officers. After police ordered the demonstrators to disperse, two women in niqabs -- face veils that show only the eyes -- who stayed to talk to journalists were detained, along with two supporters. They were later released.

On Saturday, Paris police arrested 59 people, including 19 veiled women, who turned up for a banned protest of the coming law.

Kenza Drider, one of the veiled women detained Monday, had traveled from Avignon to attend.

The 32-year-old mother of four said she was not intending to be provocative. “I am carrying out my right as a French citizen,” she said before being taken into custody. “I am not committing any crime. If anything, it is this law that is criminal.

“This whole law makes France look ridiculous. I never thought to see the day when France, my France, the country I was born in and I love, the country of liberty, equality, fraternity, would do something that so obviously violates people’s freedom.”

French officers have been ordered to enforce the law with tact and sensitivity, according to guidelines issued by the government.

The nine-page document signed by Interior Minister Claude Gueant says women cannot be forced to remove their veils in public but should be “invited to show their face” in order to be identified, and that police should try to employ “persuasion” rather than force.

A statement from the police unions said the law was “extremely difficult ... if not almost impossible” to enforce.

In 2004, France banned wearing conspicuous religious symbols, including head scarves, skullcaps and crucifixes, in state schools.