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A How-To Guide For France’s Coming Burqa Ban

The wearing of full-face veils in public will be against the law in France as of April 11. But will police and property owners be able to enforce it?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Burqas like these worn in Istanbul will not be allowed in public in France (oksidor)

It doesn’t matter whether they’re French citizens, immigrant residents or Saudi Arabian tourists on the Champs-Elysées: women will not be allowed to wear full face veils on the streets of France as of April 11.

The countdown to the law’s introduction kicked off this week with the publication of an operational circular on the ban in the government’s official journal of record. The wording in the text is purposefully neutral. “This new law is extremely symbolic but it will only affect a minority,” government officials say. It’s another way of saying: there will be no hunting down of the some 2,000 women wearing the burqa in France today.

The burqa ban comes as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tries to start a national debate about multiculturalism and laicité, France’s uniquely rigorous separation between religion and the state. French politicians from across the political spectrum have claimed that such a debate and the ban on veils are ill-timed, given the context of the present Arab uprisings.

Under the new law, if a woman refuses to uncover her face in a public place, she will be asked to leave the place. Should she refuse, “the law does not give state employees the power to force someone to uncover their face or leave. Such actions could result in prosecution.” Instead in these cases, explains the circular, a state employee should call the police.

The police would then run an identity check on the fully-veiled person. If the woman accepts to show her face she will be summoned before a local magistrate, who can propose a simple citizenship course or impose a fine of up to 150 euros. If a woman refuses to take off her burqa during the identity check, she will be taken to a local police station.

The police are reportedly reluctant to impose the ban, for fear of enflaming the situation in sensitive neighborhoods. “They should prioritize their urgent missions but if they come across a fully-veiled woman during a patrol, they should report the offence, but with discretion,” explains a cabinet spokesperson.

French authorities have printed some 100,000 posters and 400,000 leaflets bearing the slogan “The Republic lives with its face uncovered” for distribution -- at the management’s discretion -- in privately-owned, public spaces such as shops, bars, cinemas, restaurants and hotels. 

In such spaces, managers could ask their clients to uncover their faces or leave, and call the police if a situation gets out of hand… or they could simply turn a blind eye. “We don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, and ordinary citizens are not expected to act as sentinels”, explains the cabinet spokesperson.

The circular also defines the notion of “public space”, which includes public transportation, schools and universities, shops, cinemas, parks and cafes. A website has also been created to provide additional material.

Fully-veiled women can, however, travel freely in private vehicles, as passengers. The law also does not ban fully-veiled women from driving, on condition that their garment does not prevent them from moving properly.

A fully-veiled woman driver was fined in the western city of Nantes last April, on grounds that she could not see properly while wearing the veil. The woman appealed and the fine was dropped. “But this decision should not be considered as part of jurisprudence”, since the case was based on a faulty police report, the government now says. It will be up to traffic policemen to judge a burqa-clad woman’s ability to respect the traffic rules. 

Read the original article in French

Photo credit - (oksidor

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