Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Face veil ban: Will France take a hard line?

Two veiled or burqa-wearing women got arrested outside the Notre Dame Cathedral today, though not for wearing a burqa.

Two veiled or burqa-wearing women got arrested outside the Notre Dame Cathedral today, though not for wearing a burqa. They were arrested for disturbing the peace in a protest about the burqa.

Today marks Day 1 of enforcing France’s anti-burqa law. After 14 months of turgid political debate, a six-month grace period, and a nine-page police circular – new rules on wearing a face-hiding garment in public go into effect. Yet it remains to be seen how robustly these laws, which involve a 150 euro fine for offenders, will be enforced.

By coincidence, the law goes into effect a week after a so-called “national debate” on Islam and secularism in France. The debate was led by the ruling party of President Nicolas Sarkozy, but even the prime minister and leading party members dissented or refused to participate. The main religious groups of France on March 31 issued a rare and blunt joint letter saying the debate threatened to “stigmatize” Muslims and one of the world’s important faiths.

The deputy chief of the French police union, Emmanuel Roux, today said the burqa laws will be “infinitely hard to enforce,” and will be “infinitely little enforced.”

Article continues after advertisement

The French law on burqas is significant not because of any problem with burqas: Fewer than 2,000 women among France’s 5 million Muslims are thought to wear the full-length veil. Many that are visible in Paris are worn by Saudi tourists who ride in limousines from the Ritz to the ritzy Galeries Lafayette.

Traditional sense of European identity

Rather, the law is part of a new right-leaning symbolic political language in France and elsewhere in Europe that appeals to mainstream voters – telling them a traditional sense of European identity and culture applies to all members of society, including larger numbers of Muslims.

The burqa law passed last Oct. 11 after rancorous debate, but with a coalition of lawmakers on both the French left and right. On the left, the issue was the dehumanization of women; on the right, it dealt with a lack of cultural assimilation and of problems with security related to those wearing a face-covering mask.

In the end, the law simply affirms that citizens should show their faces as a matter of French values of openness.

One face-covering woman arrested outside Notre Dame, a convert named Kenza Drider, took a train this morning from Avignon to Paris, attended by numerous journalists. But the police arrested her and another woman on other charges at a small protest.

The more compelling laws have to do with husbands found forcing their wives to wear the burqa in public. They will receive fines ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 euros.

Police circulars now spell out the methods of arrest. French police must tell a covered woman to remove her veil for an identity check. If she refuses, she risks a fine, or, alternatively, a citizenship training course. Police are then advised to tell the woman that she can be taken to a police station to check her identity. If she still refuses, the police are advised to call the French equivalent of a district attorney.

A police union associated with President Sarkozy’s ruling party also casts doubt on the “appropriateness” of the law, with officials today saying arrests of burqa-wearing women is not a “priority.”