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Will France's burka ban be enforced?

Steve Evans/Open access

France's burka ban comes into effect Monday. With certain exceptions, anyone wearing clothing that hides their face in public will face a 150-euro fine and anyone forcing them to do so will be liable to 30,000-euro fine, or 60,000 euros in the case of a minor.

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As from 11 April it will be illegal for anyone to wear full veil on the street and in parks, in public institutions like train stations and town halls, and in stores and restaurants. The law's primary targets are Muslim women's facial covering, such as the burka and niqab.

Explainer - the background to France's burka debate

Police received a circular last week telling them what to do, though some feel they have better things to do.

“I can tell you that police today have other things to do than to solve the problem of the full veil in France,” Yannick Danio of the SGP police union told RFI, adding that they will still have to enforce the law. “If I see a violation in public, in this case, a veiled woman, I must make it stop. I have to ask for identification.”

To do so, police will have to ask for the veil to be removed. If the person refuses, they cannot force her to do so. Instead, they will take her to a police station.

“It will mean going to a police station, with all the security measures that entails, including a pat down – which can only be done by a woman,” explains Danio, adding that if the woman still refuses to take the veil off, she will be brought before a judge.

There are exceptions to the law's ban on covering your face in public. They are:

  • Motor-cycle helmets;
  • Face-masks used for health reasons;
  • Face-covering for sporting or professional activites;
  • Sunglasses, hats etc which do not completely hide the face;
  • Masks used in "traditional activities", such as carnivals or religious processions.

 For him, this is extra work for already overworked police officers.

“You can say that it’s not a priority for our colleagues,” he says.

The law will be under intense scrutiny as soon as it comes into effect amidst high scrutiny, both in France and abroad.

Muslims have accused it of stigmatising their religion, although the law's supporters, first among them President Nicolas Sarkozy, insist that it is an impartial of France's secular - and even feminist - principles.

Police have been specifically directed not to cause trouble, explains Mohamed Ali Adraoui, a researcher on the strict Islamic interpretation of Islam, Salafism, in France. That is why he believes there will not be much trouble when the law starts being applied.

“If you look at the law, policemen do not have the right to take off the full veil by force,” Adraoui says. “The only thing that they can do is to make them pay.”

And some activists are preparing to help veiled women avoid the fines by setting up a fund to pay for them.

Adraoui says he expects a mixed reaction from the women wearing the veils.

“Many of them will stay at home,” he says. “Many of them will continue wearing the full veil and face the authorities. Others will leave France.”

This is already happening, he says, with women deciding to leave France for Britain, Algeria, Egypt or even Yemen.

“That’s the consequences of the political treatment of the subject,” he says.

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