French court hands down first « burqa ban » fines
MEAUX, France (Reuters) – A French court fined two Muslim women on Thursday for wearing full-face veils in public, the first time a judge has imposed punishment under a « burqa ban » law that has become a legal and cultural battleground across Europe.
One of the women pledged immediately to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the ban, which President Nicolas Sarkozy says protects women and guarantees equality but opponents argue violates human rights and panders to xenophobia.
Only a tiny percentage of French Muslim women wear full-face veils. But the law, which took effect in April, has become a focus of debate in mainly-secular Europe, where right-wing parties hostile to Muslim immigration are gaining support.
The Strasbourg-based European court can consider whether to overturn the French law now that a French court has enforced it. A ruling in Strasbourg could have an impact in other EU countries which are considering similar laws.
« (This) violates European laws. For us the question isn’t the amount of the fine but the principle. We can’t accept that women are sentenced because they are freely expressing their religious beliefs, » Hind Ahmas told reporters outside the court, where she was fined 120 euros (104 pounds).
« We are going to launch the necessary appeals to bring this before the European Court and obtain the cancellation of this law, which is in any case an illegal law, » she said.
A second woman, Najate Naitali, was fined 80 euros in absentia by the court in the town of Meaux, northeast of Paris.
Ahmas said she would also appeal her sentence in a French court with the backing of French businessman Rachid Nekkaz who has pledged to pay all fines imposed under the ban.
The two women had turned up at Meaux town hall in May wearing veils to offer a birthday cake to Mayor Jean-Francois Cope, who is head of Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party and helped push the ban through parliament.
In the five months since the ban came into force, several women were asked by police officers to remove veils and one paid a fine issued on the spot, but no court had enforced the law.
The ban, first of its kind in Europe, makes public wearing of the Arabic-style niqab — which leaves the eyes uncovered — and Afghan-style burqa — which conceals the face behind a cloth mesh — liable to a fine of up to 150 euros or lessons in French citizenship.
The law has been denounced by Muslims abroad as impinging on religious freedom, but has met only a limited backlash in France, a strictly secular country where fewer than 2,000 women out of a 5 million-strong Muslim community hide their faces.
« I still wear the niqab every day and my life has become hell. I am insulted every day, » Ahmas said.
(Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Peter Graff)
French entrepreneur offers to pay veil fines
This May 18 2010 file photo shows a woman, who gave her name as Najat, holding her passport during a press conference in Montreuil, east of Paris. A proposed law to ban wearing the burqa-style Islamic veil in public, in France, goes before parliament on Tuesday. (AP)
By REUTERS (Vicky Bryan)
| Mon Jul 12, 2010 1:10pm BST
PARIS (Reuters) – A businessman is offering to sell properties to help Muslim women pay any fines that they may receive for wearing the full veil in public if a law is voted through the French parliament.
Lawmakers will vote on the bill on Tuesday, which would see women fined 150 euros (£125.45) if they wear the full veil, known as the burqa or nihab, in public places, including in the street.
In a statement published in several newspapers, Rachid Nekkaz, who tried to stand in the presidential elections in 2007, said he would use proceeds from property sales for a one million euro fund to help women pay any fines.
He has set up an association, ‘Hands off my Constitution’, which he said viewed banning the veil in the street as unconstitutional, although was not opposed to a ban in public places.
Critics see the bill as unconstitutional and difficult to enforce and say only a tiny minority of Muslim women wear the full veil, and that the legislation is a step towards tighter restraints on individual freedom.
Supporters of the ban argue that wearing garments which hide women’s faces violates the republican ideals of secularism and gender equality.
France is home to the European Union’s largest Muslim minority, with around 5 million Muslims.
The country already bans Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from schools and voters have indicated support for a ban of the full veil.
The government is expecting broad support for the bill after opposition Socialists said they would not hinder its adoption.
Critics have also suggested President Nicolas Sarkozy is using the debate to distract from the Liliane Bettencourt affair, which has seen key allies accused of accepting illegal campaign donations.
France is the second European country after Belgium to want to ban the wearing of a veil on its own soil.
The debate in Europe has provoked strong reactions in North Africa, where many of France’s Muslims trace their origins.
(Editing by John Irish)