Dispute over traffic ticket, veil marks extent of unease in France over Muslims
PARIS -- It started as a traffic ticket, issued to a woman at the wheel whose vision police said was dangerously obstructed by a full-face Islamic veil.
Before long, the case expanded into allegations of polygamy and welfare fraud against her common-law husband, a French national of Algerian origin. And now, according to Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, it has become a reason to amend the constitution to harden the way French society deals with lawbreakers among a Muslim minority estimated at more than 5 million.
The noisy rise of a $25 traffic ticket issued to Sandrine Mouleres in April in the port city of Nantes, 220 miles west of Paris, to a level of national concern has illuminated the extent of unease in France and other Western European countries over Muslim populations whose customs and visibility often clash with the continent's secular and Christian values.
Mouleres, a French convert to Islam who has four children, sent the case skyward when she held a news conference in Nantes to contest the legitimacy of her traffic ticket. Even with her full veil, she said, she could see just as well through eye slits as motorcyclists who wear mandated plastic helmets as they snarl through traffic in French cities.
The real reason she was stopped, she said, was that she was wearing an Islamic veil just as President Nicolas Sarkozy's government was announcing plans to ban such garb in public. The police in Nantes, she added, had gone overboard in what she called an atmosphere of anti-Islamic intolerance generated by the discussions of a veil ban and an earlier government-sponsored debate on French national identity.
Hortefeux, a Sarkozy confidant, immediately defended the police and, by implication, the president's anti-veil policy. He said Mouleres was in no position to complain because her companion, Lies Hebbadj, had several wives, in violation of French law against polygamy, and was gaming the welfare system. As a result, the minister said, he should be stripped of his nationality and sent back to Algeria.
Although applauding the attack on polygamy, several of Hortefeux's fellow ministers said that the French constitution lays down a strictly limited procedure for stripping someone of his nationality and that polygamy did not seem to be a sufficient cause. In that case, Hortefeux said, maybe the government should think of amending the constitution.
Meanwhile, Hebbadj, a businessman and Muslim activist who wears long robes and a checkered kaffiyeh, surrounded himself with lawyers and bodyguards to fend off reporters. Then he held a brief news conference, saying he was legally married to only one of the four women in his compound of several homes, several families and 15 children.
The three others were his mistresses, he said, adding with a smile, "And as far as I know, having mistresses is not illegal in France."
But at the Interior Ministry, Hortefeux was not joking. He ordered an investigation into Hebbadj's commercial activities and the legal situation at his multi-family compound. And his aides started looking in to what could be done about the constitution.
In an unrelated case, the minister was fined $900 last week by a tribunal that found he made racially offensive remarks directed against an Arab youth in September. The opposition Socialist Party demanded his resignation. But Sarkozy ignored the uproar, and it soon faded away.
In Nantes, Hebbadj was taken into custody last Monday and held for two days of questioning. He was charged Wednesday with illegally benefiting from welfare payments claimed by his companions and employing an undocumented Mauritanian in a little shop where African immigrants make cut-rate phone calls home.
"This trial was ordered up by the government," Hebbadj's attorney, Franck Boezec, complained afterward.
The local prosecutor, Xavier Ronsin, said no bigamy charges would be brought because Hebbadj was legally married only once, to a French woman through whom he obtained his passport.
Hortefeux, in a coordinated announcement at the Interior Ministry in Paris, said such welfare fraud by multi-spouse families goes far beyond the Nantes case. "This is not just a little news item," he said. "It is an event important to the society."
He pledged to continue seeking a legal way to strip people such as Hebbadj of French nationality if they live in what he called "de facto polygamy." A report from the National Consultative Human Rights Commission estimated in 2006 that from 16,000 to 20,000 families, chiefly immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, live in such arrangements.
"This is not a taboo question," Hortefeux said at a televised news conference. "If a foreigner acquires nationality thanks to his marriage with a French woman, and, in the years that follow, he lives in a situation of de facto polygamy while abusing the social welfare system, is it normal for him to keep his French nationality? My response is no."