A French law banning facial veils in public places goes into effect April 11, with women clad in burqas with their faces covered risking a 150-euro ($214) fine and mandatory lessons on being French.
“No one is allowed to wear a garment that hides the face in public places,” the law, passed in October, proclaims. It will soon be splashed on billboards across France. The government has created a website entitled the “Unmasked Face,” for details on the law, with brochures in English and Arabic to be made available for tourists at French consulates.
In what may be the world’s first burqa fine, the move is an effort by the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy to bar what he told parliament two years ago was a sign of “servitude” that isn’t “welcome on French soil.” Sarkozy’s ruling party also held this week a controversial debate on challenges posed by Islam to a 1905 law on secularism in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population.
The enactment of the law and the opening of the secularism debate come a year before French presidential elections, with a survey by BVA showing late last month that Sarkozy doesn’t have enough support to make it through to the second round of the vote. In canton elections last month, the far-right, anti-immigrant politician Marine Le Pen’s National Front made gains, winning the presidency of two districts.
“With presidential elections next year, the government is laying bait to lure far-right votes,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “The burqa is something most French find shocking, and the secular state is dear to the French. It’s a bit of a desperate tactic.”
The ban on face veils will apply in the streets, in post offices, cinemas, restaurants, public transport, beaches, gardens and any other public space. It won’t apply in homes, hotel rooms, at work, in cars and near religious venues.
According to the French Interior Ministry, about 1,900 women wear full facial veils that are referred to in France as burqas even though the ones worn in the country are technically “niqabs,” which cover the face and not the whole body.
A person breaching the law will, in addition to being fined, undergo a “citizenship” class, learning about French customs and ways.
Police officers won’t be able to remove the veil or the garment hiding the offender’s face; the woman will have to remove it herself. If the person declines to do so, she will have to go to the police station to prove her identity.
‘Prayer in the Streets’
“Law enforcement officers have no clue on how to implement these rules,” said Enis Chabchoub, vice-secretary of the Union des Associations Musulmanes du 93 and the Imam of the Noisy-le-Grand mosque. “Everyone has a different interpretation and there is such confusion that veiled women will be the victims.”
Germany, Belgium and Turkey are among countries to restrict the wearing of burqas or niqabs in some public places.
Another Muslim practice in France set to come under scrutiny is Friday prayers in the streets in some neighborhoods, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said in an interview with Le Figaro magazine to appear April 10. The issue was first raised by Le Pen.
“In a few months, there will no longer be prayers in the streets of France,” Gueant said, adding that other alternatives will need to be found while Muslims wait for the construction of more mosques.
He also said France will increase the expulsion of undocumented aliens and reduce the number of legal immigrants it admits each year. Gueant’s comments followed his remarks this week that the 1905 secularism law was put in place when “there were very few Muslims in France.”
With the number now between 5 million and 10 million, France -- with a population of 65 million -- may need to add some clauses to the law, he said. “The increase in the number of followers and certain behaviors cause problems,” he said.
Human rights groups, Muslim associations, and some deputies in Sarkozy’s own party have criticized the government’s stance.
Sarkozy is trying to “hide his failures, and he’s taking Muslims and immigrants as scapegoats,” Chabchoub said. “It’s the easy solution. It’s dangerous.”
The opposition Socialist Party yesterday denounced Gueant’s comments as a “provocation.”
“The (burqa) law, the debate on secularism, which is in fact really about Islam, and then Gueant’s words shows that Sarkozy sees a problem in Islam and in immigration,” said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster at the Paris-based institute TNS-Sofres, “Addressing the issue is a direct call to his core voters, those of the 2007 election: elderly people, conservatives and far-right voters he had managed to rally.”
TNS-Sofres and Le Figaro magazine’s March 31 poll showed Sarkozy added 2 points to his popularity rating to 23 percent from a record low, gaining support among elderly people.
Still, “Sarkozy’s popularity is so low that the current speeches on Islam and immigration won’t have a long-term effect,” Riviere said. “The focus fails to address what maybe is the core concern for French people: prices, unemployment, health, social security.”
For Imam Chabchoub, Sarkozy is heading down the wrong path. “While Arab countries are ending their dictatorships, we are discovering that France is heading toward one,” he said.