Less than five months before a French ban on the Islamic veil goes into effect, two separate French court rulings on Monday have brought the controversial issue to the fore and offered a sample of the legal and social challenges to come. By Joseph BAMAT (text) Two court rulings on Monday have pushed the contentious question about the place of Islam in France’s secular society back into the spotlight. They offer a preview of the legal challenges that are likely to surface when a ban on full face-covering garments takes effect in April next year.
In September France’s parliament approved a law that will prohibit wearing a full-face veil in public, and which the government says will protect women from being forced to wear Muslim face veils such as the burqa or the niqab. France’s top legal authority has said the law is constitutionally sound.
But two separate trials illustrated that the judicial struggles surrounding the veil have only started to unravel in France.
In the northern city of Mantes-la-Jolie, lawyers representing a community nursery school claimed “a victory for secular people”, after the local labour relations board upheld the school’s decision to fire an employee who refused to take off her full face and body Islamic veil while at work.
The worker sued the nursery school for 80,000 euros, claiming she was unfairly dismissed. In a surprising twist, the defendant’s lawyer did not argue that her client was a victim of religious discrimination, rather that she had always worn the garment and that the school had changed its policy. The nursery school insisted its “non-religious” character is clearly stated in its charter.
Some 400 km away, a court in the eastern city of Nantes annulled a traffic fine given to a woman driver wearing the full Islamic veil. It contradicted the local police report that the woman did not have a clear field of vision and was thus in violation of rules governing France’s drivers.
Jean-Michel Pollono, the defendant’s lawyer, hailed the decision, saying: “We are in a free country, and as a result, everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed.” The attorney also said the ruling meant that anyone in France, therefore, could now drive with a niqab.
The rulings left analysts perplexed if driving one’s car is a public or private exercise, and how such a case would differ if the proceedings happened in April 2011, once the new anti-veil ban goes into force.
Vincent Geisser, a French sociologist and author of the book We are French and Muslims, says France’s courts will be at the centre of an unavoidable battle over Islam in France.
A feeling of victimisation among Muslims in France has intensified over the last years, as was highlighted by the reactions on Monday to public remarks from far-right leader Marine Le Pen comparing French Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.
“The trials are just the visible symptom of a deeper and generalised malaise,” explained Geisser. According to the writer, who worries that the new ban could prove counterproductive and actually increase the number of women wearing the full-face veils in France, burqas and niqabs will be at the centre of legal cases with increasing frequency.
“A first trend of cases brought to court will be driven by people who are obsessed with the idea that Muslims are responsible for France’s problems, and will be related to cases in schools and hospitals,” Geisser predicts. “A second trend will stem from a new generation of Muslims who were born in France and know how to appeal to the legal system to protect themselves.”
The new law sets fines of 150 euros or/and citizenship classes for any woman, including tourists, caught covering her face. It also carries much heavier penalties for anyone, such as husbands or brothers, convicted of forcing the veil on a woman.