The French Interior Ministry said in April, on the ban’s first anniversary, that 354 women had been challenged by police for wearing full-face veils and that 299 were given citations similar to traffic tickets.
The ministry didn’t respond to a request for updated and more complete statistics.
Rachid Nekkaz, a French businessman of Algerian origin who is spokesman for “Don’t Touch My Constitution,” said his group has received complaints from 488 veil-wearing women who said they were taken into a police station for interrogation sessions of one to three hours. Some were fined, others not, he said, but all were forced to submit to questioning about their decision to wear a veil in violation of the law.
“The system is conceived to frighten people,” he charged.
No fathers or husbands have been charged with forcing women to wear the veil, he said. Women’s rights groups had cited such pressures as a major reason for the ban when it was being debated two years ago under the conservative government of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“This shows that the law was not, in fact, imposed to protect women from their husbands but to prevent them from exercising their constitutional right to express themselves,” Nekkaz said.
Women find it difficult to challenge the fines in court, he said, because cases are referred to the Cour de Cassation, an appeals court where lawyers typically charge more than $5,000 to handle a case. As a result, Nekkaz said, his organization has stepped in to pay fines for 217 women and has an open offer to pay for any who ask.
His group, which opposed the law as an infringement on freedom of expression, has gone to court in an attempt to get it modified.
Estimating the number of Muslims among France’s 65 million inhabitants is difficult because it is illegal to demand that people cite their religion or ethnic background. But the Interior Ministry, along with academic researchers, has put the number at more than 5 million. Some Muslim activists say the number is closer to 6 million because illegal immigrants, many of them North African Muslims, live below the radar.
In Marseille, the Muslim population is estimated at up to 25 percent of the city’s 800,000 residents. Muslims here are often concentrated in neighborhoods that take on the look of a North African community, with Arabic-speaking men sitting in coffee shops and women doing the shopping in outdoor markets overflowing with olives and dates.
After the violence in the Third District, police took in the veiled woman and three young men. But an on-call magistrate, noting that this was the Ramadan period of Muslim fasting and that an angry crowd was milling about outside, ordered the four released, promising they would be called back next month to face possible charges.
Infuriating police, the magistrate also ordered an internal investigation of accusations leveled by the youths that the police were unnecessarily aggressive. The investigation prompted particular outrage because Marseille police have been struggling for months to quash a bloody turf war among drug gangs that led to the killing of a police officer last winter with an assault rifle.
“The atmosphere is already tense here,” said David-Olivier Reverdy, deputy regional secretary of the Alliance police union.
Reverdy insisted that the police were correctly enforcing French law when they challenged the woman, and he denounced the magistrate for seeking to apply sociological considerations to a legal violation that no one is contesting.
“Ramadan or not,” he added, “we are in France, aren’t we?”
The three young men, he said, acknowledged that they resisted arrest and presented their apologies. But the woman, a 19-year-old convert of European origin identified as Louise-Marie Suisse, refused to apologize and maintained her resistance to the veil ban, he added.
“For her, this law should not exist,” he said.