Donations to burqa fine fund reach ?200,000

The fund aims to raise ?1 million to pay the fines of Muslim women punished under France's new law barring face-covering veils.

PARIS // A French-Algerian businessman claims money is pouring into a fund he has set up to raise ?1 million (Dh4.6m) to pay the fines of Muslim women punished under France's new law barring them from wearing face-covering veils in public. Rachid Nekkaz, the son of Algerian immigrants who settled in France in 1950, says his initiative to pay the women's fines will be financed by money raised from private donations and the sales of his own properties in the Parisian suburbs. Mr Nekkaz, who has internet as well as property interests, said he had already raised one-fifth of his target. "I have no organisations supporting me but received ?36,000 in one 24-hour period." France's national assembly approved the ban yesterday by 335 votes to one, with most opposition members abstaining; the law is expected to be endorsed by the upper house, or Senate, in September. It may face a tougher test at the constitutional council, which will also examine the text of the law to satisfy itself that its enactment would not be unconstitutional. There are also concerns that Muslim visitors to France, who choose to remain fully veiled, will be caught up by the legislation. Mr Nekkaz does not, in principle, oppose a ban on the "voile intégrale" in designated public places. However, he argues that extending the law to penalise niqab and burqa-clad women in the street is in flagrant breach of France's constitutional and democratic values. The measure approved by parliamentarians forbids women to cover their faces in all places open to or serving the public, from shops, parks, cafes and transport to hospitals, town halls and schools. After a six-month period for mediation and explanation, women in breach of the law would face fines of ?150 (nearly Dh700) or a period of citizenship instruction, or both. Any person who forces a woman to wear such a veil could be fined as much as Dh140,000 and jailed for up to a year, these penalties doubled if a minor is subjected to such coercion. In an attempt to answer criticism that the law singles out Muslims, the text makes no reference to veils or Islam. It is technically a bill to forbid concealing one's face in public. However, just 13 months after the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, chose a special session of the French parliament at Versailles to condemn the head-to-toe burqa as a symbol of subservience that was "not welcome" in France, the target was in little doubt. Immediately before attending Tuesday's vote, Mr Nekkaz - who tried to contest the 2007 presidential candidate on the platform of "Respect for the Suburbs" (he failed to secure the minimum 500 nominations) - said in an interview he was confident of rallying stronger opposition to the bill before it reached the Senate. "I have no problem with the ban in public places, and also accept it may be dangerous to drive a car while wearing a burqa," he said. "But the street is a sacred place in French democracy and no one has the right to interfere with the constitutional liberties of the people." He said that as a man of conviction, he regarded "the principle of legal sanctions for wearing the niqab in the street as the gateway to all prohibitions". Mr Nekkaz said his motive in promising to pay the fines of offenders was to avoid seeing his country of birth become "the disgrace of the whole world", he said. He had no intention of helping anyone convicted of forcing others to wear the burqa or niqab. France's progress towards creating the new law is being closely watched from neighbouring countries. Belgian's lower house has already passed similar legislation, and there is growing debate in Spain, where Barcelona is one of a number of cities to introduce or propose local bans. France has at least five million Muslims among a population of 63 million, the largest Muslim community of member states of the European Union. The French Muslim Council respects the democratic will of parliament in seeking to impose a ban and accepts that covering the face is not a requirement of Islam. In common with Mr Nekkaz, however, it believes the measure adds to the stigmatisation of Muslims as a whole and is a disproportionate response to a relatively minor problem. It has been estimated that fewer than 2,000 women in France wear a full face-covering veil and it is clear from the comments of those who have been willing to speak publicly on the issue that by no means all do so under coercion, but are merely exercising their own choice.Amnesty International has condemned the French vote, describing the ban as a "violation of the freedom of religious expression". But the French justice minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, welcomed the vote as a victory for democracy and "values of freedom against all the oppressions which try to humiliate individuals; values of equality between men and women, against those who push for inequality and injustice".