TRAPPES, France – Karima has a plan. If police stop her for wearing a veil over her face, she’ll remove it — then put it back on once they’re out of sight. If that doesn’t work, she’ll stay home, or even leave France.
For Muslim women who cover their faces with veils, it is the moment for making plans. Starting April 11, a new law banning garments that hide the face takes effect. Women who disobey it risk a fine, special classes and a police record.
The law comes as Muslims face what some see as a new jab at their religion: President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party is holding a debate Tuesday on the place of Islamic practices, and Islam itself, in strictly secular but traditionally Catholic France.
The increasing focus on France’s Muslims — who number at least 5 million, the largest such population in western Europe — comes with presidential elections a year away and support for a far-right party growing. A recent palpable rise in tensions has also been boosted by fears of a mass migration of Muslims due to disarray in the Arab world.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant put it bluntly Monday.
“This growth in the number of (Muslims) and a certain number of behaviors cause problems,” he said in remarks carried on French radio. “There is no reason why the nation should accord to one particular religion more rights than religions that were formerly anchored in our country.”
France’s challenge is evident in the Paris suburb of Trappes. It has a large Muslim population and is one of the few towns in France where veiled women are occasionally seen on the streets.
At the town hall, the subject of the impending crackdown is taboo. Some predict police will turn a blind eye to any veils to keep things tranquil.
“I have a choice to take it off. I choose not to,” said Karima, 25, shopping at the outdoor market in this town of 29,000 southwest of Paris.
Karima is forthright, though she refuses to provide her full name because of her defiant stance on the ban. Others are not so willing to talk. Two women veiled in black scurried away when approached.
“The problem of veils and so on become public issues because people are afraid,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a noted expert on Islam in France. “It’s a process of scapegoating and it works beautifully.”
The topic of Tuesday’s roundtable by Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party is officially secularism, a foundational value of France. However, the talks are expected to take up distinctly Muslim social issues like halal food in school cafeterias or demands by some for separate hours for women at public swimming pools.
Its backers say debate is needed to address evolutions in French society — such as a growing demand for mosque building and Islamic butchers — since the country’s 1905 law formally separated the state from the Catholic Church.
Detractors, however, see a sheer political ploy to lure potential voters as Sarkozy’s popularity keeps sinking and the extreme-right National Front is getting a second life under its new leader, Marine Le Pen, the daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. While Le Pen’s party performed well in local elections in March, Sarkozy’s party suffered a drubbing.
Muslims have felt stigmatized by the 2004 law banning Islamic headscarves in classrooms and again during the intense debate that preceeded the face veil ban. Muslim leaders are now so irked they have refused any role in the roundtable.
France’s top religious leaders — Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists — published a joint statement last week saying the debate could add “to the confusion in the troubled period we are traversing.”
Sarkozy fired his adviser on integration, Abderrahmane Dahmane, last month for castigating party leader Jean-Francois Cope, who is organizing the talks.
“Cope’s UMP is the plague of Muslims,” Dahmane said in an interview.
Dahmane is a controversial figure who has called on French Muslims to wear a green star Tuesday, similar to the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear under Nazi occupation. Prominent Jewish figures in France have bristled at the comparison.
Another longstanding UMP member tore up his party card in a rage at the Paris mosque. Abdallah Zekri, a member of the High Council of Mosques of France from the southwestern city of Nimes, says Arabs are being targeted.
“Muslims will always be scapegoats,” he said at a Paris news conference. “We no longer talk about immigrants. We talk about Muslims.”
In unusual terms for a secular leader, Sarkozy extolled the virtues of his country’s “Christian heritage” during a recent visit to Puy-en-Velay, the starting point of a famed medieval Christian pilgrimage route.
“Without identity there is no diversity,” the president said. “The (French) republic is secular. It belongs to each citizen without any distinction.”
Muslim women who choose to cover their faces with veils may doubt that they belong.
The measure banning the veil forbids women to hide their faces in public places, even in the streets. It punishes those who defy the law with a fine of euro150 or a citizenship course of both. Anyone discovered forcing a woman to cover her face risks a year in prison and a euro30,000 fine — doubled if the veiled person is a minor.
Authorities estimate at most 2,000 women in France wear the outlawed garment. But for each of them removing the filmy cloth would be an exceptional act.
“Behind this is spirituality,” said Karima, a doctoral student of history with Algerian-born parents. “This law will keep women at home.”
Khosrokhavar predicts that, despite the ban, the status quo will quietly continue for many women, with local authorities turning a blind eye.
The French “have lots of lofty abstract principles” like secularism, he said. “But when it comes to dealing with it concretely, you cope with it.”