Paris: Home to Europe's biggest Muslim population, France on Monday officially banned the burqa for women. France is the first to restrict women from wearing full-face veils in public places and so to risk stirring social tensions by putting one into practice.

Clearly aimed at fathers, husbands or religious leaders who force women to wear face-veils, and applicable to offences committed in public or in private, the law imposes a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in jail.

Other European countries have drawn up bans on the burqa and the niqab.

French officials estimate that only around 2,000 women, from a total Muslim population estimated at between four and six million, wear the full-face veils that are traditional in parts of Arabia and South Asia.

The law comes into effect at an already fraught moment in relations between the state and France's Muslim minority, with President Nicolas Sarkozy accused of stigmatising Islam to win back votes from a resurgent far right.

Over 59 people were arrested, including 19 veiled women, who turned up to protest against the ban in Paris, while two more were detained as they attempted to travel to the rally from Britain and Belgium, Police on Saturday said.

Some critics worry the law may be hard to enforce, since it had to be drawn up without reference to religion to ban any kind of face covering in public.
 
Anyone refusing to lift his or her veil to submit to an identity check can be taken to a police station. There, officers must try to persuade them to remove the garment, and can threaten fines.

A woman who repeatedly insists on appearing veiled in public can be fined 150 euros (216 dollars) and ordered to attend re-education classes.

There are much more severe penalties for anyone found guilty of forcing someone else to hide his or her face "through threats, violence, and constraint, abuse of authority or power for reason of their gender."


(Agencies)