Tensions Flare in France over Veil Ban

Edward Cody, The Washington Post, August 8, 2012

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 policemen drove by a storefront recycled as the Grand Sunna Mosque, they noticed a woman wearing flowing black robes and a full-face veil.

The policemen alighted from their patrol car and challenged the woman on 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 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.


“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.”


France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population, is the only country with a national ban against full-face veils, usually called a niqab. {snip}

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 already enacted bans at the municipal level.


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 299 were given citations similar to traffic tickets. {snip}



Estimating the number of Muslims among France’s 65 million inhabitants is difficult because it is illegal to demand people to 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. {snip}

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 policeman last winter with an assault rifle.


The three young men, he said, acknowledged 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.


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