French ban on face covering
The French ban on face covering (French: Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l'espace public, "Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space") is an act of parliament passed by the Senate of France on 14 September 2010, resulting in the ban on the wearing of face-covering headgear, including masks, helmets, balaclava, niqābs and other veils covering the face in public places, except under specified circumstances. The ban also applies to the burqa, a full-body covering, if it covers the face. The bill had previously been passed by the National Assembly of France on 13 July 2010.
The key argument supporting this proposal is that face-coverings prevent the clear identification of a person, which is both a security risk, and a social hindrance within a society which relies on facial recognition and expression in communication. The key argument against the ban is that it encroaches on individual freedoms.
As of 11 April 2011, it is illegal to wear a face-covering veil or other mask in public places such as the street, shops, museums, public transportation, and parks. Veils such as the chador, scarves and other headwear that do not cover the face, are not affected by this law and can be worn. The law applies to all citizens, including men and non-Muslims, who may not cover their face in public except where specifically provided by law (such as motor-bike riders and safety workers) and during established occasional events (such as some carnivals). The law imposes a fine of up to €150, and/or participation in citizenship education, for those who violate the law. The bill also penalises, with a fine of €30,000 and one year in prison, anyone who forces (by violence, threats or by abuse of power) another to wear face coverings; these penalties may be doubled if the victim is under the age of 18.
As a result of the law, the only exceptions to a woman wearing a niqāb in public will be if she is travelling in a private car or worshiping in a religious place. French police say that while there are five million Muslims in France, fewer than 2,000 are thought to fully cover their faces with a veil. The wearing of all conspicuous religious symbols in public schools was previously banned in 2004 by a different law, the French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools. This affected the wearing of Islamic veils and headscarves in schools, as well as turbans and other distinctive items of dress.
The French Parliament began an initial inquiry on the issue shortly after President Nicolas Sarkozy stated in June 2009 that religious face veils were "not welcome" within France. Sarkozy had stated that the law is to protect women from being forced to cover their faces and to uphold France's secular values. A poll carried out by Pew Research Center leading up to the vote indicated that 80% of French voters supported the ban. It was estimated that about 2,000 women wore the head coverings to be banned by this bill.
In 2010, the Belgian lower house of parliament approved a bill to ban facial coverings, but this was not voted into law as the Belgian government fell before the Senate could vote on it. As of 2010, when the French law was being debated, partial bans were being discussed in the Netherlands and Spain; bans had been announced locally in Italy but later declared unconstitutional, leading to a national law being proposed; and public debate on the issue was starting in Austria, while Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland did not consider legislation, although in the UK, directives had been issued leaving the issue to the discretion of school directors and magistrates.
Fadela Amara, who had recently served as a junior minister in the French government and is a Muslim, had previously declared that: "The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women, and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France's state school system."
The bill was passed by the National Assembly by a vote of 335–1. The sole vote against the ban in the National Assembly was cast by Daniel Garrigue, who warned that "to fight an extremist behavior, we risk slipping toward a totalitarian society." It was passed by the Senate by a vote of 246–1, with 100 abstentions. The bill prohibits the wearing of face-coverings in public places and also applies to foreign tourists visiting France. The law imposes a fine of up to €150, and/or participation in citizenship education, for those who violate the law. The bill also penalises, with a fine of €30,000 and one year in prison, anyone who forces (by violence, threats or by abuse of power) another to wear face coverings; these penalties may be doubled if the victim is under the age of 18. The Constitutional Council of France declared the ban constitutionally valid on 7 October 2010, clearing the final legal obstacle for the law, but the law was designed to come into force after the elapse of six months from the day of its publication in the Journal Officiel.
Dalil Boubakeur, the grand mufti of the Paris Mosque, the largest and most influential in France, testified to parliament during the bill's preparation. He commented that the niqāb was not prescribed in Islam, that in the French and contemporary context its spread was associated with radicalisation and criminal behavior, and that its wearing was inconsistent with France's concept of the secular state; but that due to expected difficulties in applying a legal ban, he would prefer to see the issue handled "case by case". Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, opposed using a law but favored discouraging Muslim women from wearing the full veil.
Abroad, in July 2010, hundreds of Muslims protested against the bill in Karachi, Pakistan. The chief of the Pakistan-based Jamaat-e-Islami Party demanded that the UN take immediate action against France. Nasharudin Mat Isa, leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, said that the ban had made Muslims around the world angry but stated that he hoped that it would not provoke any terrorist incidents.
Abdel Muti al-Bayyumi, a member of the council of clerics at Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, applauded the ban and stated that the niqāb has no basis in Sharia. He also said, "I want to send a message to Muslims in France and Europe. The niqab has no basis in Islam. I used to feel dismayed when I saw some of the sisters (in France) wearing the niqab. This does not give a good impression of Islam." Yusuf al Qaradawi, another prominent Egyptian Islamic scholar, stated that in his view "the niqab is not obligatory" while criticizing France for violating the freedom of those Muslim women who hold the view that it is and criticizing France in that "they allow other women to freely dress in a revealing and provocative manner".
Amnesty International condemned the passage of the bill in the Assembly as a violation of the freedom of expression of those women who wear the burqa or hijab. RTBF columnist François De Smet responded that this could not be considered a matter of freedom of expression or even religion, since face coverings are but a relic of tribal tradition; that it is face coverings that amount to violation of the freedom of expression, as they block the exchange of facial expressions which as Emmanuel Levinas pointed out are the basis for a moral participation in society; and that the neurotic search for purity that motivates facial coverings ultimately represents the "radical rejection of others" and conveys contempt for others who are not deemed worthy of sharing the wearer's facial expressions.
Hassen Chalghoumi, a notable imam of the mosque in Drancy near Paris who had earlier received death threats and seen his religious service interrupted by Islamists because he supported dialog with the French Jewish community, later expressed support for the ban. He stated that the full facial covering "has no place in France, a country where women have been voting since 1945" and that "the burqa is a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist indoctrination".
The legislators provided that, once the law was declared constitutional, a six-month period for discussion and education of the affected public would follow before the law came into force. In a program overseen by the Muslim women-led Ni Putes Ni Soumises, NGO representatives and social workers conducted individual and group information meetings with women in towns and suburbs with large Muslim populations. The representatives reported instances of some women deciding to file complaints against their husbands once informed of their rights; of some others stating that they were waiting for the law to come into force so that it would compel their husbands to release them from wearing the veil; and of some others stopping the wearing of the facial veil outright after the information meetings. While no disturbances were reported during the personal meetings with the women who could be reached, the representatives reported instances of local Islamic clerics issuing fatwās against them, of being verbally harassed, of being threatened including with implied death threats, and in one case of being physically assaulted by men. In the last preparatory phase, larger meetings and public debates were organised.
Before the law entered into force, French Interior Minister Claude Guéant instructed the police to enforce the law "with tact and sensitivity", and stated that under no circumstances could force be used to remove facial coverings in public; individuals should instead be invited to show their faces to permit identification. Guéant also instructed that people arrested for wearing full facial coverings should be told about the law's motivations in a spirit of education, as the law provides.
Reactions to the law's introduction
On 9 April 2011, 61 people were arrested in Paris for holding an unauthorized demonstration against the impending law.
The law came into effect on 11 April 2011. To protest the law's introduction several veiled women protested outside Notre Dame de Paris. One of the protestors, Kenza Drider, stated that she was "just expressing [her] freedom to be." The French government stated that the burqa damaged community relations. Supporters of the bill also stated that it promoted gender equality and secularism.
Police unions said in a statement that the enforcement of the law would be "extremely difficult ... if not almost impossible". Interior Minister Claude Guéant pointed out that notwithstanding any implementation difficulties "the role of the police and gendarmerie are to ensure that the law is respected." In fact, there were no publicized enforcement problems at the outset. The few demonstrators being arrested on the first day were brought in for discussion, as planned by the Interior Ministry and as consistent with the law's provision for citizenship education in lieu of a fine, and the first fines were imposed subsequently "without incident".
William Langley, former chief foreign correspondent of the Daily Mail and a commentator for the Telegraph, noted that beside support across the political spectrum, "the public overwhelmingly sees the ban as right for France, beneficial to its Muslim communities and justified", and concluded that the ban and its application "demonstrate that France has a more sophisticated concept of tolerance than Britain."
Five months after the law was introduced, the police had noted 100 incidents of women being stopped under the law. None of them led to a punishment, though "fewer than 10" were going through the courts. Some police have wrongly given on-the-spot fines, which were later annulled. Others appear to ignore women in niqab walking down the street, perhaps because they feel they have more important crimes to be stopping. The French Collective against Islamophobia reported "an explosion" in the number of physical attacks on women wearing the niqab. Hind Ahmas, a protester against the law who had been twice arrested for wearing a niqab said, "My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they've done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I'd be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were 'walking prisons'. Well, that's exactly where we've been stuck by this law." Kenza Drider, another protester against the law, said she lives in fear of attack. "I'm insulted about three to four times a day. Most say, 'Go home'; some say, 'We'll kill you.' One said: 'We'll do to you what we did to the Jews.'... I feel that I now know what Jewish women went through before the Nazi roundups in France. When they went out in the street they were identified, singled out, they were vilified. Now that's happening to us."
On 22 September 2011, Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali became the first women to be fined under the burqa ban after having been arrested in May for attempting to deliver an almond cake to the mayor of Meaux (a supporter of the ban) whilst wearing niqabs (the French word for fine, amende, is similar in sound to almond.) They were fined 120 and 80 Euros. Hind Ahmas announced her intention to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Kenza Drider announced her intention to run for the presidency whilst wearing a niqab.
On 12 December 2011, Hind Ahmas was ordered to attend a 15-day French citizenship course by another court for having worn a niqab at a protest outside the Elysee Palace on April 11. She was not allowed into the court as she refused to remove her niqab. She announced that she was not going to attend the course, nor remove her niqab and again declared that the law was unconstitutional and reiterated her intention to take it to the European Court of Human Rights. Prosecutors responded (to the press) that she could face two years in prison and a fine of up to 32,000 Euros. Some balaclava-wearing sympathisers of Pussy Riot were arrested in Marseille in August 2012 for being in breach of the ban.
Some law enforcement officers have complained of being attacked, physically while enforcing the law and then afterward in the media's portrayal. In July 2013, a husband allegedly attempted to strangle a police officer during a check of an entirely-veiled woman in Trappes and the next night a group of 250 youths threw projectiles at a police station. Clashes continued the following night and spread to Élancourt and Guyancourt.
- Anti-mask laws
- Freedom of religion in France
- French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools
- France debate over veils
- Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France
- Human rights
- Swiss ban on minarets
- Saudi ban on churches
- Full text of the law (French)
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