French police forces block Lies Hebbadj, who is wearing a full-face veil known as a niqab, from entering the court of justice in Nantes because she refused to show her face. (Frank Perry/Getty Images)

Though it was almost midnight, streets were full of Muslim families taking a stroll after breaking the Ramadan fast with a late dinner. As two police officers drove by a storefront recycled as the Grand Sunna Mosque, they noticed a woman wearing flowing black robes and a full-face veil.

The police officers alighted from their patrol car and challenged the woman about her veil, which has been illegal in France since April 2011. After an angry exchange, police said later, the woman shouted that she would not abide by the anti-veil law, and a youth told police that they had no business patrolling the neighborhood and accosting its predominantly Muslim residents.

The confrontation quickly escalated into a shoving match, with several dozen young bystanders joining in and carloads of police reinforcements speeding up to lend a hand. Before long, it erupted into what was described in the National Assembly in Paris as a riot, during which a female police officer was bitten on the arm and two of her male colleagues were bashed and bruised.

The sudden clash, which took place July 24 in Marseille, was the most serious instance of resistance to the veil ban during its 16 months of enforcement, according to police. Although it subsided almost as quickly as it flared, the outburst focused national attention on simmering resentment over the ban among France’s most militant and tradition-minded Muslims.

Although complaining about what they call “stigmatization,” France’s mainstream Muslim organizations have recognized the ban as the law of the land and called on followers to heed it. Most have gone along. But the makeshift Grand Sunna Mosque, police noted, has acquired a reputation as a home for the city’s more radical preachers, over whom the moderate national groups have little sway and whose followers are eager to affirm their Muslim identity.

“For young militants, this ban upsets them,” said Nassera Benmarnia, who heads the local Muslim Family Union. “But most people just want to be left alone.”

A middle-aged man, sweating behind the counter of a busy shawarma shop, with recordings of plaintive Koranic verse playing in the background, agreed. Between handing out sandwiches, he explained that most French Muslims see no need for a full-face veil but that for some, it is the response to a “Muslim taboo,” forbidding the display of a woman’s beauty outside her family.

France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population, is the only country with a national ban against full-face veils, usually called a niqab. The law has been supported across the political spectrum in Paris. But the U.S. State Department, in an annual report on religious freedom, recently criticized it for the second time as an infringement on freedom of choice.

Belgium’s lower house of Parliament has passed similar anti-veil legislation, and the government hopes to get the law validated soon in the Senate. The Dutch government has said it also would seek to impose a ban next year. Meanwhile, some Belgian cities, including Brussels, the capital, have enacted bans at the municipal level.

The bans reflect Western Europe’s unease over growing Muslim minorities, which sometimes are numerous enough to retain their own dress and customs in what can appear to be a challenge to the continent’s Christian roots and traditions. The chafing has intensified during Europe’s economic crisis, with many charging that Muslim immigrants take jobs away from French workers or burden social services with large families.

Women’s rights issue?

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.

Growing population

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.