The confrontation quickly escalated into a shoving match, with several dozen young bystanders joining in and carloads of police reinforcements speeding up to lend a hand. Before long, it erupted into what was described in the National Assembly in Paris as a riot, during which a female police officer was bitten on the arm and two of her male colleagues were bashed and bruised.
The sudden clash, which took place July 24 in Marseille, was the most serious instance of resistance to the veil ban during its 16 months of enforcement, according to police. Although it subsided almost as quickly as it flared, the outburst focused national attention on simmering resentment over the ban among France’s most militant and tradition-minded Muslims.
Although complaining about what they call “stigmatization,” France’s mainstream Muslim organizations have recognized the ban as the law of the land and called on followers to heed it. Most have gone along. But the makeshift Grand Sunna Mosque, police noted, has acquired a reputation as a home for the city’s more radical preachers, over whom the moderate national groups have little sway and whose followers are eager to affirm their Muslim identity.
“For young militants, this ban upsets them,” said Nassera Benmarnia, who heads the local Muslim Family Union. “But most people just want to be left alone.”
A middle-aged man, sweating behind the counter of a busy shawarma shop, with recordings of plaintive Koranic verse playing in the background, agreed. Between handing out sandwiches, he explained that most French Muslims see no need for a full-face veil but that for some, it is the response to a “Muslim taboo,” forbidding the display of a woman’s beauty outside her family.
France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population, is the only country with a national ban against full-face veils, usually called a niqab. The law has been supported across the political spectrum in Paris. But the U.S. State Department, in an annual report on religious freedom, recently criticized it for the second time as an infringement on freedom of choice.
Belgium’s lower house of Parliament has passed similar anti-veil legislation, and the government hopes to get the law validated soon in the Senate. The Dutch government has said it also would seek to impose a ban next year. Meanwhile, some Belgian cities, including Brussels, the capital, have enacted bans at the municipal level.