Anti-niqab laws cause furore in France among muslims

SHE went out of her way to become the first woman in France to be fined for wearing a full Muslim veil in public – even parading outside President Sarkozy’s official residence.

But the 31-year-old single mother of Moroccan origin who gave her name as “Hind” was allowed to walk away without having to pay anything, amid police uncertainty over how to enforce a law that makes it an offence to cover your face in public.

Despite her best efforts, Hind, who asked The Times not to disclose her full name, walked out of a police station after being arrested on the first day of the ban still wearing her unlawful niqab, and went to a restaurant.

The introduction of the law, which carries a fine of $206, has been touted by Mr Sarkozy’s government as a barrier against Islamic extremism that ministers say is threatening the secular nature of the French Republic.

But officials appear reluctant to implement the ban for fear of sparking riots in the suburban council estates where many of France’s five million Muslims live.

Interior Ministry advice to police insists on the need for diplomacy with women caught wearing a burka, a full veil with a net in front of the eyes, or a nikab, a similar garment but without the eye-cover.

Officers should use powers of persuasion to convince women to take off their veils and invite them to join citizenship courses, which include lessons on France’s secular values, says a ministry circular.

Offenders should be arrested and fined only as a last resort, and their veils should in no circumstances be ripped off by a male officer, it added.

But as Hind walked along the pavement outside the Elysee Palace in the company of Rachid Nekkaz, the chairman of Hands Off My Constitution, a campaign group opposed to the ban, officers initially struggled to follow the required softly-softly approach.

“We’d hardly got out of our car before they leapt on us,” Hind said.

“They pushed us down a side street, and there was a real rumpus. There was pushing and shoving all over the place. One man fell over and a woman police officer tried to pull my veil off. But I resisted.”

Hind was taken to the police station along with Mr Nekkaz and three other activists, who were all wearing Venetian masks, which are also illegal under the new French law.

A male officer asked Hind to take off her veil to enable him to verify her identity.

“But I refused and said I would only take it off in the company of a female officer. He just wrote down my answer and let me keep the veil on.

“Then an officer came up to tell me that I was going to be the first woman fined under the new law. But just a few minutes later, his superior arrived to say that I wouldn’t be fined after all.”

Mr Nekkaz said: “The truth is, they’re afraid of actually implementing this law.”

Hind, a divorcee who lives in north Paris, said that she had worn a niqab for six years and “have absolutely no intention of taking it off. This law is unjust and anti-Islamic. It is an attack on my right to religious freedom.”

She was one of at least three women in niqabs arrested on the first day of the law.

The other two, including Kenza Drider, 32, a housewife from Avignon, were detained outside Notre Dame Cathedral.

But officers said that they had been arrested not because of their clothes but because their demonstration was unauthorised.

The law appears unlikely to have more than a symbolic impact. For one thing, there are only 2000 or so women who wear full face-covering Muslim veils in France.

Also, police appear far from determined to force women to uncover their faces.

“The law is going to be immensely difficult to apply and will be applied in a small way,” said Manuel Roux, the deputy general-secretary of the Union of Senior Police Officers.

“In some places, a simple police intervention is enough to cause trouble. I can’t even imagine what would happen if we started to show an interest in a veiled woman in a sensitive environment with very proud men around.”

Amnesty International said that the law “puts France to shame”.

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