Five years after France introduced its controversial ban on wearing the full Islamic face veil in public, the subject still bitterly divides opinion.
While opinion polls suggest most French are in favour of the so-called 2010 burqa ban, as is the Socialist government, some experts who have studied its impact tell a different story.
Agnès de Féo, a sociologist and filmmaker who has explored the subject for ten years and studied the impact of the 2010 law, says it has been “a total failure”.
She argues it has both encouraged Islamophobia as well as given Muslim extremists more cause to feel the need to rise up against the French state.
“We created a monster,” De Féo says. “Those who have left to go and fight in Syria say that this law is one of things that encouraged them. They saw it as a law against Islam. It had the effect of sending a message that Islam was not welcome in France,” she says.
The 2,000 or so women who wore the niqab before 2010 “Were hardly a threat to French culture or society,” De Feo says, unlike the home-grown jihadists who represent a real menace to social cohesion in the country.
Photo: Antoine Taveneaux
Defenders of the 2010 law, brought in under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, argued that its main aim was part of a security measure to bar anyone from being able to hide their identity in public.
Secondly, supporters said it would help promote freedom and respect for women. Those who flout the ban are subject to €150 fines, while some undergo citizenship courses.
But critics like De Féo argued at the time that the law was simply brought in to win votes and pander to Islamophobes.
“Islamophobia works very well in France,” she says. “Both on the Right and the Left.”
“People had the impression that the women wearing the veil were abused by men. But in ten years I have never met a woman who was forced to wear the veil by a man,” she says.
“People presented this cliché that Muslim women needed to be saved from men.
“We now live in a society where people think it’s normal to insult Muslim women wearing the full veil just because they are disobeying the law,” she says, pointing to several unsavoury incidents in recent years including women being attacked and having their veils pulled off their faces.
“The more these women are insulted, the more they feel they are not accepted in France. It’s a total rupture with society.”
She argues the law has encouraged the kind of “communitarianism”, which France is ever desperate to avoid, because those who insist on wearing the niqab stay in the housing estates where they live.
“They don’t leave for fear of being insulted or stopped by police,” De Féo says.
Before 2010, there were considered to be only around 2,000 Muslim women wearing the veil in France, but according to De Féo the motivation for many women who wear the veil has now altered.
“Before the ban most Muslim women wore the veil for religious reasons,” she says. “Now a lot of the women who wear the niqab started doing so after the law was introduced. They converted to Islam and began wearing the veil because it became an identity to them.
“For them it’s an act of resistance against the state, just like the punk or skinhead movements. That’s why they are happy to pay their €150 fines.
“Certain women who wear the veil just want to provoke. They wear it in public to cause annoyance or fear and they are not scared of the police.”
One niqab-wearing woman in France confirmed that view to Le Monde newspaper.
“It’s my way of fighting, to say no to the government who took away my liberty,” said a woman named Leila, who began wearing the veil after 2010.
That view is backed up by the figures released from France’s interior ministry to coincide with the five-year anniversary since the law was brought in.
Since the burqa ban came into force, a total of 1,623 stops have been made by police and 1,546 fines of €150 given out, but only against 908 women.
That’s because many of those controls have involved stopping repeat offenders. Indeed, one woman has been fined 33 times and five women have been fined more than 14 times each.
And the number of fines being handed out is on the rise, with 234 being issued in 2011 compared to 397 in 2014.
The way the law has been applied has also been a problem with many police officers more inclined to turn a blind eye, especially in sensitive suburbs where relations between local youths and police are already fraught.
In 2013 one police check on a woman wearing the veil provoked three days of rioting.
Despite the views of De Féo and other critics, the ban seems here to stay.
In 2014 it was given the backing of the European Court of Human Rights.