Police change their mind over imposing a fine on woman wearing face-covering veil, prompting her supporters to challenge authorities to enforce the law.
France backs off enforcing veil ban
Marseille, France //Campaigners opposed to France's new law banning Muslim women from wearing face-covering veils in public have thrown down a challenge to the authorities to start imposing the fines.
The protest group Touche Pas à Ma Constitution - hands off my constitution - had planned to mark the first €150 (Dh815) fine by marching to the Elysée palace in Paris today to hand over a cheque in payment.
But Marie Hassan, 23, who says she was told by police she would be fined for wearing the veil outside her home in Marseille on April 21 was officially informed on Monday that the fine would not be applied. Ms Hassan, a single mother of Yemeni parentage who has sons aged two and four, had intended to take part in the Paris demonstration, which has now been postponed. She vows to go on wearing the veil even if she is eventually penalised.
In at least two cases in other areas of France, initial reports that women had been arrested were also followed by decisions not to proceed against them.
Rachid Nekkaz, a French-Algerian property developer behind the campaign, announced yesterday that the emphasis would now switch to calling on the government to ensure the law should take its course.
"We want to know from the government: where are your fines?" said Mr Nekkaz, who runs a €1 million (Dh5.4m) fund to pay any penalties incurred and pursue the cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
"Since the law entered in vigour on April 11, contrary to what has been said by police stations and the local government minister, no fine has been applied."
Mr Nekkaz, who is symbolically seeking the French socialist party's nomination as candidate for the 2012 presidential elections, is organising a demonstration at Meaux in Seine et Marne tomorrow to coincide with the birthday of the city's parliamentary representative, Jean-François Copé, the leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling centre-right UMP party.
Two or more fully veiled women will take part in the event in the hope of being arrested as what Mr Nekkaz calls a 47th "birthday present" for Mr Copé.
"He was the instigator of the law forbidding the wearing of the niqab in all public places," he said. "French citizens will be there, in niqabs in the streets of Meaux, to take part in this national event."
Despite Mr Sarkozy's desire to appear tough on aspects of Islam, which he believes offend France's secular values, there has so far been striking official reluctance to ensure the law is upheld.
Fewer than 3,000 women in France are thought to wear face-covering veils, though Mr Nekkaz says there are signs of non-Muslim women starting to do so in a gesture of solidarity, citing a group of supporters in Grenoble, at the foot of the French Alps. He deplores the new law as "an affront to French freedom and democracy".
Ms Hassan said yesterday she was not disappointed to find her status as the campaign's figurehead had been delayed, if not cancelled.
"I realise I could be arrested again today or tomorrow or at some time in the future," she said.
"I certainly will not give up and am prepared to fight this battle to the end, come what may.
"I was told I was going to be fined and then that I was not, which I find bizarre."
Ms Hassan was born in France, as was her father, although his parents - and his Ivorian-born wife's parents - were from Yemen. She was named "Marie" after a great-grandmother with Israeli Jewish origins.
"My view is that I am disturbing no one when I express my faith and my freedom by wearing the niqab," Ms Hassan said. "On the contrary, I have to put up with insults and criticism when I go out into the street or into the shops.
"I am not an extremist. I oppose terrorism. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and it is wrong for it to be mixed up with terrorism as happens daily. I give full respect to the law but in this case, the law attacks my own freedom."
She added that she recognised the arguments on security and was always prepared to lift her veil for identification when collecting her elder child from school, attending public administration offices or asked by police.
Mr Sarkozy has been criticised for adopting measures that exclusively target Muslims in response to the rise of the far-right Front National party which constantly complains about the "Islamification" of France.
Under the new law, the penalties become much more severe - up to a year in jail and a fine of €30,000 if coercion is involved - and harsher still if a minor is forced to cover her face.
Mr Nekkaz says he will auction a property he owns in the Paris region to ensure his fund has sufficient money to pay any fines and legal costs.
On a personal level, he opposes face-covering veils. But he believes the law brings shame on his country, given its historic attachment to human rights, and insists that women have a constitutional right to dress as they wish.
Claude Guéant, France's hardline interior minister, has declared that the law "will be respected". He told reporters on the day it took effect that while enforcement would be difficult, "important principles" were at stake.