France’s controversial ban on face veils went into effect on Monday, prohibiting the covering of one’s face anywhere in public. The move comes amid charges that President Nicholas Sarkozy is attempting to scapegoat Muslims in an effort to appeal to the country’s extreme political right — a sentiment that’s become increasingly popular throughout Europe and the United States.
Veiled women in France now risk facing a fine of €150 ($215) and a citizenship course or up to 4 hours of detainment for donning the Muslim niqab or burqa outside their homes, though not jail time. Anyone who forces a woman to wear the veil could face up to a year in prison and a €30,000 fine ($43,000), possibly double that if the veil-wearer is a minor. Police have complained that the law will be difficult to apply.
The law was crafted to not mention the words "women", "Muslim" or "veil", instead saying that it is illegal to hide the face in the public space, but it is clearly targeted at members of the country’s largest religious minority.
"We feel that it is contrary to equality of sexes, dignity of a person, and it’s creating a ghetto, you know? Because those ladies refuse that we see her face, and this is unbearable in the tradition," Jacques Myard of France’s ruling UPM party told Al Jazeera English.
About a dozen people demonstrated against the ban yesterday in front of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, protesting it as an infringement of freedom of expression and religion. Two protesters wearing face veils were arrested for taking part in the unauthorized protest, and were released after three and a half hours. About 60 people were arrested in another protest on Saturday.
One of the arrested women, Kenza Drider, told Al Jazeera, "This law infringes my European rights. I cannot but defend them that is to say my freedom to come and go and my religious freedom."
The ban was first discussed in parliament almost two years ago with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s backing, who said in 2009, "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic."
Authorities estimate that at most 2,000 women veil their faces in France. That’s just .04 percent of France’s five million Muslims, or .003 percent of the country’s population. While the ban has enjoyed wide public support, critics see it as political maneuvering on Sarkozy’s part.
"As the extreme right gains increasing popularity in France, President Sarkozy has been accused of trying to win back votes for next year’s presidential election by deliberately stigmatizing Muslims," said Al Jazeera’s Paris correspondent Tim Friend. "Many feel that this is not necessarily strictly about emphasizing France’s secular traditions but…pandering to people’s prejudices."
Though France is the first country to publicly ban the veil, the move seems to be the latest in a series of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant measures and statements made by European politicians, and mirrors right-wing Islamophobia in the United States. A similar bill was passed in Belgium but has not yet been enforced, and a ban has been proposed in Netherlands, while Switzerland banned the building of minarets in 2009.
Michelle Chen wrote about the politics behind this trend for Colorlines earlier this year, saying, "The real problem is not ‘political Islam’ so much as it is a deep sense of economic insecurity and unemployment–and the desire for a scapegoat."