France: Women protest on first day of France's face veil ban

The Guardian

Kenza Drider stood defiantly outside Notre Dame, adjusting her niqab to reveal only a glimpse of her eyes. Scores of police with a riot van and several lorries stood by as she and another woman in a niqab staged a peaceful protest for the right "to dress as they please". On the first day of France's ban on full Islamic face-coverings, this was the first test.

"I'm not here to provoke, but to defend my civil liberties as a French citizen," said Drider, a 32-year-old mother-of-four from Avignon, accompanied by around 10 supporters. Japanese tourists and Spanish schoolchildren fought their way through TV crews to get a picture of the spectacle. Then police swooped.

Drider had not been stopped on her train journey into Paris. But as she spoke to journalists at Notre Dame, she was led off by plainclothes police and driven away along with two protest organisers. Next a woman in a niqab in her 40s from a Paris suburb was grabbed by a plainclothes officer, who gripped her tightly and frog-marched her to another police bus. Officers said the women were not detained for their niqabs but because their protest had not been authorised.

Under the law promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy, any Muslim woman wearing a face veil is now banned from all public places in France, including when walking down the street, taking a train, going to hospital or collecting her children from school. Women in niqabs will be effectively under house arrest, allowed only inside a place of worship or a private car, although they risk being stopped by traffic police if they drive.

But several French police unions yesterday warned that the law was almost impossible to enforce and that they would not make it a priority to stop women in full veils walking down the street.

Halima, a 53-year-old mother from Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, who wears a headscarf, was detained by police for standing silently with the niqab-wearers at Notre Dame. She said: "This is the first time I've ever protested over anything. I'm not in favour of the niqab, I don't wear it myself. But it's wrong for the government to ban women from dressing how they want. Islamophobia is on the rise in France. First it's the niqab, then they'll ban the jilbab, then it will be plain headscarves outlawed."

Rachid Nekkaz, a property developer and rights campaigner from the Paris suburbs, was detained outside the Elysée palace with a woman in a niqab. Nekkaz, who organised the Notre Dame protest, had offered to pay niqab wearers' fines for breaking the law. He said police had not wanted to formally caution the woman for wearing a niqab.

Women in face veils risk a €150 (£132) fine or citizenship lessons. Police cannot forcibly remove face coverings in the street but can order women to a police station to check their identity. The government estimates between 350 and 2,000 women cover their faces in France, out of a total Muslim population between four and six million.

Some niqab-wearers – many of them French converts – vowed to continue going out and to take their cases to the European court of human rights if stopped by police. Others have moved abroad, while just one woman told French papers she had permanently removed her face covering.

Another niqab wearer said women she knew would wear bird-flu-style medical face masks and say they were ill in order to get round the law against covering your face.

Shop-owners said luxury fashion boutiques near the Champs Elysées were unlikely to call the police to detain female tourists in niqabs from the Gulf. This would create a two-tier system between rich tourists and poor French people, one trader complained. Emmanuel Roux from the police union, Syndicat des Commissaires de la Police Nationale, said the law would be "infinitely difficult to apply" and "infinitely little applied".

Sarkozy, whose polls are at record lows with next year's presidential election looming, has been accused of stigmatising Muslims to boost his support among far-right voters. Since he declared in 2009 that the burqa was "not welcome in France", women in all forms of veils and head coverings said verbal abuse against them had increased. Recently the interior minister, Claude Gueant, suggested the growing number of Muslims in France was a problem. Religious groups have likened current Islamophobia in France to anti-Jewish feeling before the second world war.

France has a strict separation of church and state and banned headscarves and all religious symbols in schools in 2004.

Samy Debah, head of the French Collective against Islamophobia, said: "The niqab law is a pretext to reduce the visibility of Muslims in public spaces. It exposes an old French colonial reflex, that 'Arabs and blacks' only understand force and you can't talk to them."

• This article was amended on 12 April 2011 to remove the phrase 'normal headscarf' in the sixth paragraph