A controversial law banning the wearing of garments that cover the face in public has come into force in France.
It's the first such nationwide ban to be enforced in a European Union country, after similar efforts in Belgium last year were derailed by a government crisis.
The ban primarily affects Muslim women who wear the full-face veil, barring it from government buildings, public services, streets, and entertainment venues.
Proponents argue it is necessary on grounds of security, gender equality, and upholding France's secular system. The ban also enjoys broad public support in France, with four out of five polled in a survey last year saying they approved.Critics Claim Ban Increases Harassment
But critics say it violates rights such as freedom of expression and religion. And many Muslims say they have felt stigmatized during the intense debate that preceded the adoption of the law, as well as by a recent divisive debate on French national identity, and a 2004 law banning Islamic head scarves in classrooms.
Kenza Dryder, a mother of four, told Reuters she has faced harassment for wearing the face veil since the law was approved last year:
"I've had to deal with every form of abuse," she said. "Verbal, moral, physical abuse. Someone [even] assaulted me with a knife. The life I've had since the start of this debate? Well, when going outside, I constantly get looks of hatred, insults."
The ban comes into force less than a week after a roundtable discussion hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) on the practice of Islam in the secular French Republic.
French Islamic scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar
Professor Farhad Khosrokhavar, who has published extensively on Islam in Europe, told RFE/RL that all these debates and measures around Islam in France and elsewhere on the continent reveal a certain "rejection."
"There is some sort of rejection -- if you want -- of the Muslim particularity in the European public space," he said.
"This is partly due to the identity crisis of European society, which makes Muslims perceived as people who do not want to integrate, although most Muslims integrate without problems.
"We made a law in France [on the full veil] amid tumultuous debates, but generally it's not a great social problem. It's more a symbolic matter, a matter of identity."
France has Western Europe's largest Muslim population -- as many as 6 million people, mainly of North African origin or descent.
Of those, fewer than 2,000 women are thought to wear the full veil, most often a niqab worn with a long, dark robe. A burqa covers the eyes, as well.
Lawmakers passed the legislation banning such garments in public last year. A six-month grace period followed, aimed at giving those who wear a face veil time to adjust to the new law.Police Will 'Close Their Eyes'
As of today, those who refuse to abide by the ban risk a fine of 150 euros ($217) as well as mandatory classes in French citizenship. Anyone found to have forced a woman to wear the veil could be fined up to 60,000 euros ($86,000) and serve up to two years in jail.
A poster informing public-utility-services users of the ban on full-face veils in public at a social-services agency in Lyon on April 8
Police are likely to tread cautiously for fear of igniting tensions.
"We will intervene on request; otherwise we will close our eyes," said Yannick Danio of police union Unité SGP Police.
Still, some analysts say the legislation could be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, whose decisions are binding.
With Muslims now accounting for up to 10 percent of France's population, the country is much changed since 1905, when the law on secularism was adopted.
There have been concerns that an increase in overt displays of Muslim faith in the public sphere -- including the veil, collective street prayer, and the invoking of religion to challenge rules at schools, hospitals, and swimming pools -- are undermining France's secular system.
Sarkozy's party has argued that it would be irresponsible not to debate the great challenges posed to French society by this reality -- hence last week's three-hour discussion on the place of Islamic practices in the republic.
Participants discussed proposals like introducing courses on secularism at school or forbidding parents from taking their children out of mandatory school subjects for religious reasons.Ruling Party Wants 'To Ease, Not Inflame' Tension
With his popularity at record lows a year before a presidential election, Sarkozy has been accused of seeking to woo back voters increasingly drawn to the National Front anti-immigration party under its new leader Marine Le Pen.
But addressing the debate that was boycotted by Muslim religious leaders, UMP head Jean-Francois Cope said his party aimed to ease, not inflame, tensions in society.
Jean-Francois Cope, head of France's ruling right-wing UMP party
"The French need solutions; the National Front needs problems," he said. "Never forget it: One less problem is one less electoral argument for Mrs. Le Pen."
France's top religious leaders -- Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists -- published a joint statement before the debate, saying it could add "to the confusion in the troubled period we are traversing."
The meeting, in which Prime Minister Francois Fillon declined to take part, provoked protests even from some members of the governing party itself.
Sarkozy last month fired his adviser on integration, Abderrahmane Dahmane, after he said Cope's UMP "is the plague of the Muslims."
And Abdallah Zekri of the French Council of the Muslim Faith tore up his party card in a rage at the Great Mosque of Paris and called on all French Muslims to do the same.
"We cannot be members of a party which is stigmatizing us," he said, "which [always] speaks about Islam, and which attacks us continuously."with agency reports