PARIS – France’s new ban on the Islamic veil was greeted with a wave of defiance on Monday, as several women appeared veiled in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and two were arrested for participating in an unauthorized protest.
France on Monday became the first country to ban sails everywhere in public, from open-air markets to the sidewalks and boutiques on the Champs-ElysÃ©es.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy set the wheels in motion for the ban almost two years ago, saying the veils imprison women and contradict the values ââof dignity and equality of this secular nation. The ban received broad public support when it was approved by parliament last year.
Although only a very small minority of France’s at least 5 million Muslims wear the veil, many Muslims see the ban as a stigma against the country’s No.2 religion.
A dozen people, including three women wearing niqab veils with just a slit for their eyes, demonstrated outside Notre Dame on Monday, saying the ban is an affront to their freedom of expression and religion.
Much larger crowds of police, journalists and tourists filled the square.
One of the veiled women was seen taken in a police van. A police officer at the site told The Associated Press that she was detained because the protest was not allowed and the woman refused to leave when asked by police. The officer was not allowed to be named publicly.
The Paris police administration said another woman was also arrested for participating in the unauthorized protest.
It was not clear whether the women were also fined for wearing a veil. The law says veiled women face a fine of $ 215 or special citizenship classes, but not jail.
Those who force women to wear the veil face up to a year in prison and a $ 43,000 fine, or even double if the person veiled is a minor.
The law is formulated to safely cross legal minefields: the words “women”, “Muslim” and “veil” are not even mentioned. The law says it is illegal to hide the face in public space.
While Italy also has a law prohibiting concealment of the face for security reasons, French law was the first to be designed to target veil wearers. Sarkozy said he wanted a ban, and that sails are not welcome in France.
Moderate Muslim leaders in France and elsewhere agree that Islam does not require women to cover their faces, but many are uncomfortable with the veil ban. The religious leaders denounced the measure, and wonder what to advise the faithful.
The ban plans sparked protests in Pakistan last year and warnings from al Qaeda. It also has fervent Muslim tourists who are cautious, since it applies to visitors as well as to French citizens.
Authorities estimate that at most 2,000 women in France wear the illegal veil. Muslims in France are at least 5 million, the largest such population in Western Europe.
The ban affects women who wear the niqab, which has only one slit for the eyes, and the burqa, which has a mesh screen over the eyes.
Kenza Drider, who lives in Avignon and wears the niqab, calls the ban racist. She had planned to attend the demonstration on Monday.
Just before the ban went into effect, she said she would continue to do “shopping, at the post office and at the town hall if necessary. I will not stop wearing my veil under any circumstances.”
âIf I am verbally warned and have to appear before the local prosecutorâ¦ I will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights,â she told AP Television News.
The veil, for her, “is a submission to God,” Drider said.
Police have complained that the law will be a challenge to enforce.
“The law will be infinitely difficult to apply, and it will be infinitely rarely applied, unfortunately”, declared Emmanuel Roux of the police union SCPN on France-Inter.
He said police were instructed not to use force to remove the veils and if a woman refused to take them off, the police officer was supposed to call the prosecutor for further legal action. Only in very extreme cases, he said, would a woman be jailed for refusing to remove a veil.
Public opinion in Paris on the morality of the application of the ban seems mixed.
“It is not a racist law. It is just a law which comes from the history of France and it must therefore be accepted if we want to integrate in France and with the French”, insisted Laurent Berrebe, economist walking through central Paris on Monday.
Nurse Olfa Belmanaa is against it. “We are in France, we are in a democratic country where everyone has the right to do what they want. If they want to wear a veil or be completely naked, that is their right.”
The ban has received strong support from France’s main left and right parties, in a country where some people equate veils with extremism and security risks. France separated church and state with a 1905 law, but has struggled in recent years to accommodate a growing Muslim population and nuances of the Muslim faith.
Police arrested 61 people on Saturday for trying to organize a banned demonstration in Paris against the current ban.
Many Muslims also felt stigmatized by a 2004 law banning the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in classrooms.