Protests In Paris On First Day Of French Veil Ban
A controversial French law that bans full-face veils in public took effect Monday, sparking backlash and confusion over the law's application.
The law, which was approved last year, bans people from covering their faces in public. The French government, which prides itself on its secularism, calls full veils "symbols of repression."
Protests sprouted across Paris, including a small demonstration in front of Notre Dame that resulted in two arrests.
Punishments for breaking the law include a 150-euro fine (about $215) or classes on French values, culture and secularism. But those forcing others to cover their faces can face a 12-month prison sentence and a fine of 30,000 euros – double that, if a minor is involved, the New York Times reported.
The ban has raised questions about France's feelings towards the country's 5-6 million Muslims – nearly a tenth of the population, and the largest in Europe – and more broadly, a large immigrant population. The French authorities say fewer than 2,000 women wear a full-face veil (called a niqab), prompting questions of whether the ban is targeting a specific minority population.
"These are principles that we can't compromise," French Interior Minister Claude Guéant said at a press conference Monday.
The law also applies to visitors in France.
The ban is part of a campaign by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to raise his approval ratings by targeting Islamic extremism, the Journal said. Pollster Viavoice said Sarkozy's approval ratings dropped to 29 percent on Monday morning. Sarkozy has taken other populist stances in the past to regain electoral support, including his highly controversial decision last August to expel the Roma Gypsies from France.
The ban doesn't mention Islam, not does it call the full-length garb by name. Notable exceptions include motorcycle riders, surgeons, welders, riot police and people wearing festival outfits, including Santa Claus costumes, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Following the ban, "women in niqabs will be effectively under house arrest," The Guardian wrote, only allowed in a place of worship or a car – and even then, they can be stopped by traffic police.
The Interior Ministry has told police that they cannot remove veils. Instead, they're instructed to transport the person in question to a police station, where they can be identified and remove their veil if they haven't already.
The ban on full-face veils is the last in a string of laws designed to separate state and religion, including a 2004 law that bans crosses, head scarves and other religious symbols from schools and government buildings.
Amnesty International spoke out against the ban when it passed in the French Parliament last year, saying it "violates the right to liberty of expression and religion of those women [who wear veils] as an expression of their identity or their convictions."