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The man who says he’s paid $278,000 in burqa ban fines

French business executive Rachid Nekkaz displays bank notes next to two sisters who were fined 50 euro each after they were caught wearing the full veil in public, at the town hall in Brussels on Aug. 17, 2011. (Yves Logghe/AP)

For the past five years, the act of wearing an Islamic full-face veil in France's public spaces has been illegal. This means that if you were a Muslim woman and you wore a niqab or a burqa and walked down the street, you ran the risk of a 150 euros ($167) fine.

This summer, some French cities have added their own local bans on the "burkini" — a swimming garment that covers the entire body except the hands, feet and face. If you wear the burkini on the beach in Cannes, for example, you could receive a fine of 38 euros ($43).

For the French Muslims who felt they must wear such outfits, such fines would seem like a considerable financial burden. However, it appears that thousands of these fines have been paid off by one individual — a wealthy business executive who says that France's laws targeting Muslim attire are "profoundly liberty-threatening."

"I am not defending these women per se — but defending the principle of individual civil liberties that their actions currently embody," Rachid Nekkaz explains.

Yet some critics wonder whether Nekkaz is really as altruistic as he might seem — or whether he's more interested in publicity.

Nekkaz was born in the suburbs of Paris to Algerian immigrants. He is a self-made success story, having made a small fortune with Internet start-ups before expanding into real estate. In the mid-2000s, he began to seek similar success in politics, making a failed attempt to run as the "candidate of the suburbs" in the 2007 presidential election and following up with another push in the municipal elections the next year.

As these efforts stalled, Nekkaz moved in a different direction.

In 2009, the French government under Nicolas Sarkozy moved to ban full-face veils; Sarkozy himself called the burqa (which was not widely worn in France) a symbol of "debasement" that was "not welcome" in the country. Nekkaz quickly became one of the most vocal opponents of the proposed law. In 2010, he announced that he was setting up a fund of 1 million euros that he would use to pay any fines given to women who wore the veil.

As Nekkaz puts it, the fund's aim was "to neutralize this profoundly liberty-threatening law's application on the streets," and he soon moved its scope beyond France's borders. He says he has now paid for 1,165 fines in France, 268 in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one Switzerland.

"This comes to a total of 245,000 euros [$278,000] with attorneys fees," Nekkaz said.

He recently began paying the fines for women wearing burkinis, too. The business executive said he has paid five fines so far, all in France. "I await more of them. I expect maybe a hundred or so," Nekkaz said, adding that he expects there to be perhaps 2,000 fines in total as more mayors pass anti-burkini laws ahead of next year's French presidential and legislative elections.

To hear Nekkaz describe it, his act is born of a selfless belief that what he describes as France's "anti-Muslim madness" should be stopped. The 44-year-old is quick to point out that he is actually against the wearing of the niqab or even the burkini. "They don't represent the best approach for integrating into European society in general — and France in particular, as it's becoming increasingly Islamophobic," he said.

His wife, a Stanford-educated American, doesn't wear either and Nekkaz said that during a 2013 trip to Khartoum, Sudan, the couple had to both intervene to prevent a woman not wearing a hijab from being flogged in public.

Meanwhile, his own personal sartorial choices seem to owe something to the famed French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, as some in the French media have noted. Nekkaz studied history and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and he seems to see himself as a thinker. He admits to being fascinated by the philosopher Voltaire and in particular his sympathetic view in the case of the Protestant Jean Calas.

"In 2016, intolerance towards Muslims is comparable to the intolerance towards the Protestants of 1763," he said. "I must regretfully announce that today, there are no Voltaires in France."

Nekkaz said he has been targeted for his actions: He has undergone four international tax audits since 2010, and his tenants have been threatened with legal action, he said. French deputies have tried to target him for his fine-paying with jail time, Nekkaz said, and it was only vetoed by the government because of fears it would make him a martyr.

In the end, Nekkaz said he felt he had to give up his French citizenship in 2013 "because I no longer wanted to associate my identity with a country that violates the principles of individual freedoms on a daily basis."

Not everyone's views of Nekkaz's story are quite so sympathetic, however.

His decision to give up his French passport coincided with a failed bid to run for the president's office in Algeria, where his dual citizenship would have been a problem. Within France, he had already gained some infamy for publicity stunts in 2007 when he purchased the sponsorship of a mayor in the upcoming election, then tore it up in front of cameras as a protest.

Agnes De Feo, a researcher and documentary maker who since 2009 has interviewed hundreds of French women who wear the burqa, said that while she believes Nekkaz paid the fines in the beginning, he has a reputation as someone who doesn't keep his promises among the women she knows.

De Feo forwarded on messages from two women who said that they had reached out to Nekkaz but they never received a response. A third women told DeFeo that a friend had her fine paid by Nekkaz, but that the friend faced harassment after he publicized the fact.

"It's just a businessman who seeks notoriety, in my opinion," she said.

Nekkaz pushes back against such criticisms. He said some in the Muslim community, such as the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, have tried to discredit him because he did not give them money. He also said that he does not pay the fines of those in enclosed public spaces, such as offices and shopping centers, and that he requests that each woman he helps issue a written commitment to nonviolence and anti-radicalism.

"I am defending the principle of civil liberties in the street and not these particular women's ancillary issues if they have any," he said.

There is somewhere that these critics and Nekkaz would probably agree, however: The French laws have not succeeded in stopping women wearing the niqab and the burqa. Statistics released by the French Interior Ministry in mid-2015 showed that even though the law was not always enforced, 1,546 fines have been given out. Often, they went to repeat offenders — one woman had been fined 33 times.

Nekkaz said he is in contact with 583 women who wear the niqab. Two-thirds are of French descent and converted to Islam, he said, and 241 are repeat offenders. "From the point of view of having the courage to stick with one's beliefs, I feel very proud about that," he said.

"Thanks to the fund allocated to the defense of these women's freedom to dress as they please in the street, women are no longer afraid of wearing the niqab," he said. "There are indeed more women who wear it in 2016 than in 2011. The Sarkozy law is a failure."

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Correction: A previous version of this article said that Nekkaz purchased the mayor's sponsorship in 2013. It has been corrected to show that it was in 2007 and that the act was meant as a protest.