France's controversial ban on the Muslim face veil comes into force today, with women who wear a niqab or burqa in a public place risking a fine of €150.
The law, which President Nicolas Sarkozy says is designed to reaffirm French secular values and the rights of women, is likely to affect about 2,000 women living in France.
Police in Paris yesterday arrested 59 people at an unauthorised protest against the new law.
In a circular sent to prefects and police chiefs to set out how the measure would be implemented, interior minister Claude Guéant said it would not be applied near mosques. He stressed that police would not have the right to remove a woman’s veil.
He said the law included balaclavas and masks but would not prohibit the covering of one’s face with a motorcycle helmet, a bandage, a welding mask, a fencing mask or a fancy dress mask.
The ban on the veil will apply in all public spaces. It will not apply in private homes, hotel rooms and office space belonging to an association or company (with the exception of rooms where members of the public are received). The law also defines the inside of a car as a private space exempt from the measure.
After months of debate about how police will deal with women who refuse to remove the veil or to reveal their identity, Mr Guéant told police they would be empowered to warn offenders that they may be brought to a police station, but he stressed that the use of force to remove a veil was not allowed. “The security forces do not have the power to take off a garment that conceals the face,” the circular stated.
Under the law, anyone forcing a woman to cover her face could receive a one-year jail sentence and a €30,000 fine, and Mr Guéant called on police to act in a “determined and vigilant” manner to enforce this provision.
The proposed ban has been contentious in France, where almost 10 per cent of the 62 million population are Muslim. Amnesty International opposed the measure, saying is “violates the right to liberty of expression and religion of those women” who wear the burqa and the niqab “as an expression of their identity or their convictions”.
Its critics say fewer than 2,000 women wear a face veil in France, according to the interior ministry’s estimate, and argue that the measure will stigmatise Muslims. Opposition figures have accused Mr Sarkozy of pressing the issue in order to win support from the far right in advance of the 2012 presidential election. The Socialist Party abstained in the vote on the issue in parliament.
Mr Sarkozy and his ministers have responded by seeking to reassure the country’s Muslims. “This is a decision one doesn’t take lightly,” the president said.
“Nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected.”
Mr Sarkozy said France was “an old nation united around a certain idea of personal dignity, particularly women’s dignity, and of life together. It’s the fruit of centuries of efforts.”
While some Muslim leaders opposed the ban, the French Council of the Muslim Faith supported it, saying the face veil represented “an extremist, literalist reading of the Koran, not a religious obligation”.
In a separate circular issued last month, prime minister François Fillon said he wanted to “solemnly reaffirm the values of the republic”, arguing that “concealing the face . . . places the people involved in a position of exclusion and inferiority incompatible with the principles of liberty, equality and human dignity affirmed by the French republic.”