French religious clothing law extending its reach?

French religious clothing law extending its reach?
France, which has a law since 1905 separating Church and State, bans the covering of faces by women in all public places. The so-called “Anti-Burqa Law” has led to several incidents when police tried to establish the identity of wearers who risk a €150 (S$222) fine.

When France introduced laws limiting religious clothing in state schools and public places, the emphasis was on veils hiding Muslim women's faces. Now, it is a long black skirt.

A 15-year-old girl, named only as Sarah K, was suspended from her school in north-eastern France, for two days in April after being sent home twice for wearing the skirt that staff considered an "ostentatious" sign of her Muslim faith. Sarah wears a scarf covering her hair on her way to and from school, but removes it on arrival.

Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who was born in mainly Muslim Morocco, backed the Leo-Lagrange college, but she also stressed that it was the girl's "proselytising" rather than clothing that was behind the problem. "No student can be excluded nor has been excluded because of the length or colour of her skirt,"?the minister said.

The place of Muslims in France has come under closer scrutiny since gunmen killed 17 people, mostly in the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in January. After the attacks, several suspected Muslim radicals were arrested.

The wearing of religious clothing is regulated by two laws.

One, implemented in 2004, bans all "ostentatious" religious symbols inside state schools. These include the Muslim veil, the Jewish kippah and visible Christian crucifixes.

The second, of 2010, outlaws the covering of faces by women in all public places. France has been a strictly lay republic since a 1905 law separating Church and State.

The first ban does not apply to private religious schools. The French Muslim Al-Kanz website says the country has 61 Muslim schools either functioning or about to open, alongside 282 Jewish and 8,485 Catholic schools.

France has no official data of religious or ethnic origins, believing such publication to be discriminatory, but the Washington-based Pew Research Centre in 2011 put the number of Muslims in the country at 4.7 million, or 7.5 per cent of the population.

Most originate from France's former colonies in North Africa, including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, or sub-Saharan Africa.

The case of Sarah K. is not isolated. Ms Elsa Ray, a spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, wrote on her Facebook page that it handles about 100 similar incidents in schools every year, and that some 20 had arisen so far this year, after 130 in 2014.

The 2010 law banning the full veil, often called the "Anti-Burqa Law"?after the Afghan variant, led to several incidents when police tried to establish the identity of wearers who risk a €150 (S$222) fine.

In a Paris suburb, the husband of a woman wearing a full veil was given a three-month suspended prison sentence in 2013 after violently pushing back police who asked for his wife's identity papers. His arrest sparked a night of rioting in the town.

Records show police have intervened 705 times since 2010, leading to 661 fines. A woman in Nice was stopped 29 times by police. Most of the women were aged between 20 and 29; 25 were minors.

In most cases, the offenders were "saved", thanks to Mr Rachid Nekkaz, a businessman of Algerian origin and head of an association called Leave My Constitution Alone which, he says, has paid 657 fines and lawyers' fees totalling €117,000.

One French Muslim woman challenged the law at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In its ruling last year, the court said the law amounted to "a permanent interference" in private life, but that this was justified by "legitimate" goals including public security.

Last October, during a performance of Verdi's La Traviata at the Bastille Opera House, members of the choir complained about a veiled woman sitting in a €231 front-row seat just behind the conductor. An official explained the law to the woman and her companion, advising the woman to uncover her face.

The couple - French media said they were Gulf Arabs - chose to leave.

The opera house said the couple did not request a reimbursement.

This article was first published on May 21, 2015.
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