PARIS >> During a recent protest in Marseille, seven people were suddenly surrounded by the police, bundled into a van and brought in for questioning. Their offense was not the demonstration itself but the balaclavas they were wearing, a violation of the French law banning full-face veils in public places, passed in April 2011.
The demonstration was against the conviction of the feminist Russian punk band Pussy Riot, hence the balaclavas, but the law was aimed at what Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president, considered a rise in Islamic extremism in France.
From the beginning, critics warned that the law, in addition to depriving Muslim women of their rights, would further inflame tensions already raised to a high pitch by the economic crisis, riots and lingering fears of terrorism, on one side, and accusations of racism on the other. A little more than a year later, however, defenders and critics agree that the actual impact of the law has been far less dramatic than the politicized prologue, largely because of tolerance from most Muslims and the police.
France’s experience with the burqa bill is in many ways a proxy for the country’s — and Europe’s — ability to integrate its Muslim population, the largest on the Continent. The Belgian government hopes to enact a similar ban on the niqab — which covers every part of the face except the eyes, and is popularly and mistakenly called a burqa — and the Dutch government has said it hopes to pass such a law next year.
Since the law went into effect, 425 women wearing full-face veils have been fined up to 150 euros ($188) each and 66 others have received warnings, said Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesman for the Interior Ministry. But even the police concede that they rarely enforce it, having no desire to further increase tensions. In “the great majority of cases,” Brandet said, women lift their veils when the police ask in what he called “a serene and respectful way on both sides.” Some women who wear the niqab say that for the most part the police know them and leave them alone.
But the issue does flare up occasionally. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on the evening of July 24, a young woman outside a storefront mosque in Marseille refused to lift her veil and resisted the police. The confrontation was joined by several dozen bystanders outside the mosque, known for its Salafist preachers.
Police reinforcements were called to quiet the outburst, the most violent since the law was passed, and four people were arrested. The incident, combined with another on Aug. 4 in Roubaix, near Lille, where a policewoman was bitten, seemed to reflect pent-up anger about the treatment of Muslims among more militant and conservative branches of Islam.
It was to avoid accusations of discrimination that the Sarkozy government originally wrote the bill as a security measure, proscribing anyone from wearing clothing “intended to hide the face.” But it also set prison terms for anyone forcing another to wear the full-face veil, a measure clearly aimed at Muslims.
Defenders of the law, which has been popular with the public, said that France needed to protect its “republican values” of secularism in the public space; many also said that France’s Muslims, immigrants and French-born, must accept French norms. Some said that the law protected Muslim women from religious extremism and gave them freedom of choice, rather than taking it away.
Mickael Boucheron, of the union UNSA Police, said that the recent incidents in Marseille and Roubaix “highlight the doubts our unions mentioned” during the debate on the law, including the risk of stoking tension between the police and Muslims, many of whom live in poorer areas and already feel discriminated against.
Kenza Drider, an outspoken critic of the law, continues to wear the niqab as part of what she considers her religious duty as a married Muslim woman. A convert, she is the mother of four children and considers the law discriminatory and “completely ridiculous.”
When asked by the police to remove the veil she does so, but then immediately replaces it. Recently, at a police station, an officer told her that she was not allowed to wear the niqab in public places — like the police station. “So write me up for another fine,” she responded. The policeman gave in, she said, understanding that the play could have gone on indefinitely.
She continues to walk around her hometown, Avignon, with the niqab, and in general, she said, the police now know her and wave at her instead of arresting and fining her.
Hind Ahmas, 33, has worn the niqab for eight years against the wishes of her family, who immigrated from Morocco. Even after the law was passed, “not once did it occur to me” to remove the veil, she said in a telephone interview from her home in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sur-Bois. “I feel like France has decided to boycott some human rights,” she said.
“This law has made my life miserable,” said Ahmas, the divorced mother of a 5-year-old girl. It is not the fines that upset her, but the way ordinary people now feel they can confront her. “I’ve been spat at, honked at from cars and also beaten,” she said. “I was assaulted while I was carrying my daughter in my arms.”
As a mother, Drider said, “I hate this law from the bottom of my heart because of the way my children look at France now.”
But most of the women who wear the niqab — about 2,000 out of a French population of more than 65 million, the Interior Ministry estimates — are not as outspoken.
“They limit their moves and stay in their own neighborhood,” said M’hammed Henniche, secretary-general of the private Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, while others have reluctantly removed the veil in public places.
A few women construct a full-face veil out of a hijab, or head scarf, in combination with other scarves that can be quickly removed or replaced. Some women wear caps and sunglasses to complete the covering but in a way that appears secular or even fashionable.
Henniche opposed the niqab ban as a political effort to “stigmatize a community,” he said, but he has counseled French Muslims to obey the law and work for repeal.
A French businessman of Algerian origin, Rachid Nekkaz, has offered to pay any fine incurred for wearing the niqab. So far he has paid 412 fines totaling more than $60,000, plus $16,000 in legal fees. But many Muslim women who wear the veil simply stay home, he says, adding: “The law was meant to protect women but it has imprisoned them instead.”
Ahmas is appealing an arrest and fine to France’s highest court, hoping then to question the law’s validity before the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of religious freedom. Such an appeal could take several years.
Henniche expects the Socialists to work to appease the Muslim community, which voted heavily for the party. But there are other issues on his plate, he said — not enough mosques or Muslim cemeteries for a population that is estimated at close to 6 million.
He cited an Arab proverb, “A problem makes you forget a problem.” In the last year, there have been controversies over the height of minarets, and halal fast food, and prayers in the streets when mosques overflow, and halal meals in schools, and the right of foreigners to vote in local elections, he said. Given those polemics and tensions, he said, repealing the burqa ban “can wait until later.”
But when he visits London, Henniche said, the first thing he notices is the number of women wearing the niqab walking freely on the streets. “I think, ‘Whoa, it’s an open country, English people are open,”’ he said. “Such tolerance is a good thing.”