Suspicion of polygamy stokes France's veil debate

PARIS (AP) — She was fined for driving a car with a veil covering all but her eyes. Now, her husband is suspected of polygamy.

The situation appears to be a boon to President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is trying to rush through controversial legislation forbidding burqa-style Islamic veils that cover the face on the grounds they don't respect French values or women's dignity. But it has stoked debate and might backfire on legal grounds.

Many Muslims fear a law banning face-covering veils because they say targeting the tiny minority of women who cover their faces stigmatizes France's entire Muslim community — at an estimated 5 million people, the largest in western Europe.

The revelation last week that a police officer cited a 31-year-old woman in Nantes for driving with apparel that hinders vision provided a taste of what is in store for France if a measure banning face-covering veils is passed, as expected.

The government said after Wednesday's Cabinet meeting that Sarkozy wants a law banning such veils even in the streets, despite the conclusions of a report by France's Council of State saying such a law might not pass constitutional muster — in France or in the European Union. The bill will be introduced in May, government spokesman Luc Chatel said. Some lawmakers in Sarkozy's party want it fast-tracked to pass by the end of July.

Belgium also plans a full ban on Islamic garments that cover the face and was expected to be the first EU country to institute one, until the collapse last week of the Belgian government. That legislation is on hold, and France could become the first EU country with such a law.

The veiled woman, who has not been identified by name, decided to contest her €22 ($29) fine after being cited in early April for wearing a "niqab" that covers all but the eyes — thrusting the case into the national spotlight.

The affair took a twist Friday when Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux asked for an investigation of the woman's husband based on suspicions he is married to at least 3 other women — and allegedly profiting from state subsidies for single women provided to each of the wives.

If true, Hortefeux wants the French citizenship of the husband, born in Algeria, revoked.

The probe will determine whether the man was married to four women in French civil ceremonies, which would be highly unlikely. Were he married in religious ceremonies by imams in Algeria or in France, these unions would not count as marriages under French law, said Rabah Hached, a Paris lawyer who specializes in immigration issues.

In that case, each of the officially unmarried women could potentially receive state aid for her children.

"It's not forbidden to have a mistress," Hached said by telephone. While stressing he does not know details of the case, Hached said that "I strongly suspect this gentleman we're talking about is within his rights."

The state prosecutor in Nantes, Xavier Ronsin, said on France-Info radio that the investigation "into complex family or financial situations must not be (carried out) too rapidly."

The husband, whose robed image has been flashed around France by TV, has only identified himself by his initials: LH. Neighbors confirm he is Lies Hebbadj, head of a recently opened halal butcher shop. He has not yet addressed questions about his situation.

Still, the timing could not have been better for Sarkozy who has striven to revive what he says is a loss of basic French values and who portrays himself as a friend of victims — in this case women he claims are forced by husbands to cover their faces.

Sarkozy is sinking in polls and his conservative party was trounced in March regional elections. Some Socialist rivals suggested the arrest of the woman with a suspect husband was a setup.

"The government takes the French for idiots and our Muslim compatriots for scapegoats," Socialist lawmaker Jean-Marie Le Guen said Sunday on the itele TV news channel.

The leading Socialist lawmaker, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who represents the Nantes region, denounced "manipulation." The man's situation "has been known for several months, even several years, by state services, justice and social services," he said on France-Info radio.

France's Muslim leaders have consistently said the veil debate is stigmatizing Muslims, like a debate on national identity that largely was viewed as anti-Muslim, anti-immigration forum. This weekend, Muslim officials in Nantes said in a statement they were "indignant at the Islamization" of the Muslim woman's traffic citation.

The question of banning face-covering veils was first broached last June when Sarkozy told parliament that such garments are "not welcome" in France, a message he repeated last month.

The issue blossomed into a major debate, recalling the enmity dividing politicians and citizens before France outlawed Muslim headscarves and other "ostentatious" religious symbols from classrooms in 2004.

The Interior Ministry estimates no more than 1,900 Muslim women wear attire that hides the face. But a parliamentary inquiry launched a six-month inquiry and concluded, like the Council of State, a ban is needed to ensure respect for French values but should not concern street dress.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon has conceded the government is taking a risk pushing through legislation that may not be constitutionally solid.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson, in an interview in Sunday's Le Parisien newspaper, agreed there was a limited but present risk factor.

He added, however, that he did not foresee "an instant demand for the person to remove her scarf."

"But there could be fines. That would make people reflect."


Pierre-Baptiste Vanzini in Nantes contributed to this report.