PARIS (AFP) – France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim population, banned the wearing of full-face veils in public Monday, despite threats of protest from a group that already feels stigmatised.
The draconian new law, the first of its kind to be enforced in Europe, was immediately broken by a young woman from the southern city of Avignon, who has become the media symbol of France's tiny community of niqab wearers.
"I had been invited to take part in a television programme which I am going for and I find that today is April 11, the first day of the application of the ban," Kenza Drider, 32, told reporters before boarding a train for Paris.
"This law infringes my European rights, I cannot but defend them, that is to say my freedom to come and go and my religious freedom," the voluntary worker and mother-of-four said. "This law breaches these rights."
Rights groups plan to protest against the ban on central Paris on Monday, and a businessman has announced that he will auction off a two-million-euro property to raise funds to pay any fines imposed on veil-wearers.
Meanwhile, French police fear the law will be impossible to enforce, since they have been given no power to use force to remove head coverings, and could face resistance in already tense immigrant districts.
"The law will be infinitely difficult to enforce, and will be infinitely rarely enforced," said Manuel Roux, deputy head of a union representing local police chiefs, in an interview with France Inter radio.
"It's not for the police to demonstrate zeal," he said, predicting that when patrol officers meet veiled women they will simply try to explain the law to them and to persuade them to remove their face covering.
"If they refuse, that's when things get really complicated. We have no power to force them," he said. "I can't begin to imagine we're going to pay any attention to a veiled woman in a sensitive area, where men are proud."
The law came into effect at an already fraught moment in relations between the state and France's Muslim minority, with President Nicolas Sarkozy accused of stigmatising Islam to win back votes from a resurgent far right.
French officials estimate that only around 2,000 women, from a total Muslim population estimated at between four and six million, wear the full-face veils that are traditional in parts of Arabia and South Asia.
But many Muslims and rights watchdogs accuse the rightwing president of targeting one of France's most vulnerable groups to signal to anti-immigration voters that he shares their fear that Islam is a threat to French culture.
On Saturday police arrested 59 people, including 19 veiled women, who turned up for a banned protest in Paris, while two more were detained as they attempted to travel to the rally from Britain and Belgium.
Anyone refusing to lift his or her veil to submit to an identity check can be taken to a police station. There, officers must try to persuade them to remove the garment, and can threaten fines.
A woman who repeatedly insists on appearing veiled in public can be fined 150 euros (216 dollars) and ordered to attend re-education classes.
There are much more severe penalties for anyone found guilty of forcing someone else to hide his or her face "through threats, violence, constraint, abuse of authority or power for reason of their gender."
Clearly aimed at fathers, husbands or religious leaders who force women to wear face-veils, and applicable to offences committed in public or in private, the law imposes a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in jail.
Belgium's parliament has approved a similar law, but has yet to enforce it. In the Netherlands far-right leaders have proposed a ban, and in Italy the right-wing Northern League is lobbying for a ban on the French model.