Muslim pair fined total of €200 after deliberately defying formal ban on the 'integral' veil introduced earlier this year and becoming first to be prosecuted for breaking new law.
Two women convicted in France for wearing niqabs
Two women became the first in France to be fined by a court for wearing face-covering veils yesterday as a third French Muslim used the event to announce her plans to stand in the 2012 presidential elections.
Police have intervened in a number of other cases since France introduced a formal ban on the "integral" veil earlier this year, but their action had previously stopped short of court proceedings.
Yesterday's prosecution in the city of Meaux was symbolic. The women deliberately chose to defy the ban in the municipality represented in the French parliament by Jean-François Copé, a senior government figure and one of the architects of the law.
Fines of €120 (Dh600) and €80 were imposed respectively on Hind Ahmas, 32, and Najate Naït Ali, 36. The court rejected defence submissions that the law should not be applied because it breached the women's constitutional rights, but also refused to follow the prosecutions' recommendation that both women should be ordered to take citizenship courses.
The maximum fine is €150, though the penalties become far steeper and can involve imprisonment if a man forces a woman or, especially, a minor to wear the full-face veil.
The two women were arrested when they turned up at Meaux town hall on May 5, the birthday of Mr Copé, the general secretary of the ruling, centre-right UMP party. They were carrying what they described as his birthday presents, a cake and an easy opportunity for the contentious law to be enforced against them. The cake was almond-flavoured, intended as a play on words since the French translation amande is similar to the term for a fine, amende.
A further confrontation was averted when the women arrived at court veiled but too late to gain entry. A previous hearing was adjourned because they refused to remove niqabs.
Outside the court, Ms Ahmas, a single mother from the Parisian immigrant suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, said: "We've been sentenced under a law that violates European law. For us, it's not about the size of the fine, but the principle. We can't allow women to be convicted for freely following their religious beliefs."
Both women are supported by the organisation Touche Pas à Ma Constitution (Hands off My Constitution), founded by a wealthy French-Algerian businessman, Rachid Nekkaz.
The movement promises to pay all fines and the cost of appeals to higher courts, including the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). An ECHR ruling on yesterday's convictions would be of wider significance because similar laws have been introduced in Belgium and some areas of Italy, with other countries considering legislation of their own.
The "voile intégral" was banned after a parliamentary process that followed claims by Mr Sarkozy that it "imprisoned" Muslim women and was unwelcome in France. Passage of the law was described by Michèle Alliot-Marie, then justice minister, as a victory for "values of freedom against all the oppressions which try to humiliate individuals".
However, official figures suggest only about 2,000 women in France, out of a Muslim population estimated at five to seven million, wore full-face coverings; those who have spoken publicly insist they have acted according to their own free choice.
Mr Nekkaz, who is married to an American Roman Catholic, regards himself as a moderate Muslim but believes the law against veils is an affront to France's democratic traditions, making a mockery of the country's reputation as the cradle of human rights.
Meanwhile, Meaux was also chosen as the venue for an announcement of the presidential aspirations of Kenza Drider, 32, a woman of Moroccan origin living in Avignon.
Her faced concealed, she gave a selective press conference to three media organisations: CNN, the Associated Press international news agency and the French magazine Le Point.
Ms Drider, who has covered her face in public for 13 years, has been at the forefront of Muslim resistance to the new law and gave evidence to the parliamentary "commission of information", which is investigating whether such clothing should be banned.
She said yesterday's fines would be launching pad for her bid for the presidency, though it seems unlikely she will receive the necessary 500 signatures from local officials around France, approving her as a candidate, before President Nicolas Sarkozy seeks a second mandate next spring.
Her election poster, prepared in anticipation of fines being imposed, pictures her veiled in front of a police line and describes her as a "freedom candidate".
Ms Drider likened the new law to a form of house arrest, an "unconstitutional" restraint on the right of citizens to go about their daily business.
"I have the ambition to serve all women who are the object of stigmatisation or social, economic or political discrimination," she said. "It is important that we show that we are here, we are French citizens and that we too can bring solutions to French citizens."
Mr Nekkaz sought unsuccessfully to stand in the current primaries to find a candidate from the opposition socialist party, to which he belongs, to oppose Mr Sarlozy and other contenders, including the far-right, anti-immigration Front National.
* Additional reporting by Associated Press