PARIS – On Wednesday, French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie presented a draft law to the Cabinet banning Muslim veils that cover the face, the first formal step in a process to forbid such attire in all public places in France. It calls for euro150 ($185) fines and, in some cases, citizenship classes for women who run afoul of the law.
The measure notably creates a new offense, “inciting to hide the face,” and anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil risks a year in prison and a euro15,000 ($18,555) fine, according to a copy of the text.
“Citizenship should be experienced with an uncovered face,” President Nicolas Sarkozy told the Cabinet meeting, in remarks released by his office. “There can be no other solution but a ban in all public places.”
Although the Interior Ministry estimates there are only 1,900 women in France who cover their faces with veils, the planned law would be another defining moment for Islam as the nation tries to bring its Muslim population – at least 5 million, the largest in western Europe – into the mainstream, even by force of law.
The bill is to go before parliament in July, and despite the acrimonious debate that is sure to come, there is little doubt the measure will become law. Sarkozy, who says such veils oppress women, wants a law banning them on the books as soon as possible.
“If the law is voted, I won’t take off my veil. … No one will dictate my way of life but God,” said Najat, a divorcee, who gave her age as “45 plus.” She was one of a half-dozen women who, in a rare move, met with reporters Tuesday to express their worries about changes they say will heavily impact their lives.
Like others, she refused to give her full name. All said they fear for their safety in an increasingly tense climate. Najat was among those who said she has been harassed since debate over the planned law began nearly a year ago.
The measure, which could be amended once it reaches parliament, foresees a six-month delay in its application to explain the law, which means it wouldn’t take effect until early in 2011.