PARIS – France’s new ban on Islamic face veils was met with a burst of defiance Monday, as several women appeared veiled in front of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral and two were detained for taking part in an unauthorized protest.
France on Monday became the first country to ban the veils anywhere in public, from outdoor marketplaces to the sidewalks and boutiques of the Champs-Elysees.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy set the wheels in motion for the ban nearly two years ago, saying the veils imprison women and contradict this secular nation’s values of dignity and equality. The ban enjoyed wide public support when it was approved by parliament last year.
Though only a very small minority of France’s at least 5 million Muslims wear the veil, many Muslims see the ban as a stigma against the country’s No. 2 religion.
About a dozen people, including three women wearing niqab veils with just a slit for the eyes, staged a protest in front of Notre Dame on Monday, saying the ban is an affront to their freedom of expression and religion.
Much larger crowds of police, journalists and tourists filled the square.
One of the veiled women was seen taken away in a police van. A police officer on the site told the Associated Press that she was detained because the protest was not authorized and the woman refused to leave when police asked her to.
The Paris police administration said another woman was also detained for taking part in the unauthorized demonstration.
It was unclear whether the women were also fined for wearing a veil. The law says veiled women risk a $215 fine or special citizenship classes, though not jail.
People who force women to don a veil are subject to up to a year in prison and a $43,000 fine, and possibly twice that if the veiled person is a minor.
The law is worded to trip safely through legal minefields: The words “women,” “Muslim” and “veil” are not even mentioned. The law says it is illegal to hide the face in the public space.
While Italy also has a law against concealing the face for security reasons, France’s law was the first conceived to target veil-wearers.
Moderate Muslim leaders in France and elsewhere agree that Islam does not require women to cover their faces, but many are uncomfortable with banning the veil. Religious leaders have denounced the measure, and are struggling with what to advise the faithful.