By Steven Erlanger
September 2, 2012
The French law banning the full-face veil from public spaces has been controversial from the start, with loud debates about the meaning of liberty, individual rights, the freedoms of religion and expression, and the nature of laïcité, or secularism, in the French republic.
While pushed by the center-right and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the ban was not opposed by the Socialist Party, which largely abstained in parliamentary votes. And the current French president, François Hollande, has said he has no intention of discarding the law, which has been generally popular with the French.
But since it was finally implemented in April 2011, there have been relatively few incidents and fines, and the police, for the most part, have tried to avoid raising tensions with Muslim communities that already feel the burden of discrimination and joblessness.
This article I wrote with Elvire Camus tries to look at the impact of the law on women, Muslims and the police.
Originally proposed in 2009 by André Gerin, the Communist mayor of Vénissieux, a town near Lyon with many Muslims and immigrants, the banning of what the French mistakenly call the burqa — actually the niqab, which leaves the eyes uncovered — started a highly politicized polemic in France.
Mr. Gerin, who was also a deputy in the National Assembly, defended the ban as a protection for Muslim women against religious obscurantism and radical Islam, and as a defense of “French republican values,’’ including secularism.
Public spaces are considered republican and are meant to be free of religious symbols. That was part of the fight behind the earlier law banning head scarves and any other form of religious identification from French public schools.
But the Interior Ministry estimated in 2009 that only about 2,000 women in France, a country of more than 65 million people, wore the niqab, and some wondered whether a measure that seemed aimed at one gender of one religion should become the law of the land.
In the end, to avoid charges of discrimination, the law was written without any reference to Islam or to women and was presented as a security measure, making it an offense to wear clothing “intended to hide the face’’ in any public place, including shops or the street. The police do not have the authority to remove full veils, only to fine or require citizenship lessons for those who violate the new law. A clause says that anyone who forces a woman to cover her face can be imprisoned for up to a year and fined up to 30,000 euros, or $37,000.