Police arrest veiled women at 'burqa ban' protest
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A much-debated French ban on wearing full Islamic veils in public came into force Monday, and was promptly met with a protest at which two women wearing the garment were arrested.
A controversial law banning full face veils in public places in France came into force on Monday, prompting a protest at which two women wearing the garment in front of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral were arrested.
Among the dozen-odd demonstrators were three women wearing the niqab, which has just a narrow slit for the eyes. The square in front of the famed Paris landmark was, as usual, buzzing with tourists, but there were journalists and police on hand, too.
It remained unclear if the protesters were arrested for wearing the veil in public or for holding a demonstration without a permit. One police officer at the protest told The Associated Press news agency that the two women were indeed detained because the protest was not authorised and they refused to leave when asked to do so by police.
It was also unclear whether or not the women received a fine for wearing the veil in public. Under the new law, any person (man or woman) who persistently covers their face in public places can be fined 150 euros, although police officers do not have the power to forcibly remove a woman’s veil.
Offenders can also be taken to a police station for their identities to be verified. In addition to imposing fines, police can also order veil-wearers to attend “citizenship” classes.
The law takes a much tougher stance against people who force others to cover up through “abuse of authority or power”, with fines of 30,000 euros and prison sentences of up to a year.
A ministerial directive issued earlier this month outlined that wearing a veil is banned in all places open to the public, including parks, shops, cinemas, restaurants and public transport.
The face, however, can be covered in the home, in hotel rooms, on corporate premises, in private vehicles and at places of worship.
‘This law is Islamophobic and racist’
Critics say the law stigmatises Muslims, while its defenders insist that the veils are an affront to the principles of gender equality and secularism.
Detractors believe the law is motivated by racism and an attempt by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s embattled government to win voters back from the far-right National Front (FN). They argue that the niqab-wearing population is too small to warrant such a law; France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, standing at five million, but just 5,000 women are estimated to wear the full face veil.
Niqab-wearing Kenza Drider told FRANCE 24 that she has been attacked and subjected to racist abuse since the debate on banning the veil began last summer.
“This law is Islamophobic and racist,” she said. “My life now consists of hate stares and insults.”
Drider, who insists she will carry on wearing her veil, added: “It’s a question of freedom of religion, of conscience. Those rights are protected by European law.”
The law has already caused unrest. French police arrested 61 people Saturday, including 19 women, who tried to hold an unauthorised demonstration in Paris against the law.
Critics say the law will be difficult to enforce, and could cause tension in immigrant districts.
The law comes into force as Sarkozy’s popularity is suffering ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Last summer, as Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party was rocked by embarrassing scandals, the president championed legislation against the niqab, saying it was “not welcome” in France.
His party has also started a national debate on the role of Islam in the staunchly secular country.
Despite these efforts, the FN has been gaining ground. A recent opinion poll put its leader Marine Le Pen ahead of Sarkozy in the first round of a presidential election.