PARIS — France’s new ban on Islamic face veils was met with an outburst of defiance on Monday, as several women appeared veiled outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and two were arrested for taking part in an unauthorized protest.
France on Monday became the first country to ban veils everywhere in the public, from open-air markets to the sidewalks and shops of the Champs-Elysées.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy set the wheels in motion for the ban nearly two years ago, saying the veils imprison women and contradict the secular nation’s values of dignity and equality. The ban enjoyed widespread 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, staged a protest outside Notre Dame on Monday, saying the ban is an affront to their freedom of speech and religion.
Much larger crowds of police, journalists and tourists filled the square.
One of the veiled women was seen taken away in a police van. A police officer at the site told The Associated Press that she was arrested because the protest was not authorized and the woman refused to leave when asked by police. The officer was not authorized to be named publicly.
The Paris police administration said another woman was also arrested for participating in the unauthorized protest.
It was unclear whether the women were also fined for wearing a veil. The law states that veiled women risk a €150 fine or special citizenship classes, but not jail.
People who force women to wear the veil are liable to a year in prison and a fine of €30,000 ($43,000), or even double that if the veiled person is a minor.
The law is written to travel safely through legal minefields: the words “women”, “Muslim” and “veil” are not even mentioned. The law states that it is illegal to hide your face in public places.
While Italy also has a law against concealing the face for security reasons, the French law was the first designed to target veil wearers. Sarkozy said he wanted a ban, and that the veil is 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. Religious leaders have denounced the measure, and are struggling to know what to advise the faithful.
The proposed bans prompted protests in Pakistan last year and warnings from al-Qaeda. It also has fervent Muslim tourists who are capricious, since it caters to both visitors and French citizens.
Authorities estimate that at most 2,000 women in France wear the banned veils. Muslims in France number at least 5 million, the largest such population in Western Europe.
The ban applies to women who wear the niqab, which only has a slit for the eyes, and the burqa, which has a wire mesh over the eyes.
Kenza Drider, who lives in Avignon and wears a niqab, calls the ban racist. She planned to attend Monday’s protest.
Just before the ban came into effect, she said she would continue to “run errands, at the post office and at town hall if necessary. Under no circumstances will I stop wearing my veil.
“If I am verbally warned and have to appear before the local prosecutor…. I will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights,” she told AP Television News.
The veil, for her, “is a submission to God,” Drider said.
Police have complained that the law will be difficult to enforce.
“The law will be infinitely difficult to apply, and it will be infinitely rarely applied, unfortunately,” said Emmanuel Roux of the police union SCPN on France-Inter.
He said the police were instructed not to use force to remove the veils and that if a woman refused to remove it, the officer was supposed to call the prosecutor for further legal action. Only in very extreme cases, he said, would a woman be imprisoned for refusing to remove a veil.
Public opinion in Paris on the morality of enforcing the ban appears to be mixed.
“It is not a racist law. It’s just a law that comes from the history of France and therefore you have to accept it if you want to integrate in France and with the French, ”insisted Laurent Berrebe, economist on a walk in the center of Paris on Monday.
Nurse Olfa Belmanaa opposes 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 been strongly supported by 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 integrate a growing Muslim population and nuances of the Muslim faith.
Police arrested 61 people on Saturday for trying to stage an illegal Paris protest against the impending ban.
Many Muslims also felt stigmatized by a 2004 law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves in classrooms.