French police have arrested two women wearing full-face veils as a ban goes into effect. Starting Monday, women who defy the unprecedented law can be fined.
Police in Paris arrested two protesters wearing traditional niqab veils on Monday.
The women were part of a demonstration that erupted in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. One of those arrested was 32-year-old Kenza Drider from the southern city of Avignon, who had travelled to Paris to appear on a television show.
"This law infringes on my European rights," she said. "I cannot do anything but defend them, that is to say my freedom to come and go and my religious freedom," Drider told reporters.
Police, however, said the women were detained for taking part in an unauthorized protest rather than for wearing their veils.
Businessman and activist Rachid Nekkaz told AFP that he and a female friend wearing the niqab were arrested by police in front of President Nicolas Sarkozy's Elysee Palace. "We wanted to be fined for wearing the niqab, but the police didn't want to issue a fine," Nekkaz said.
France on Monday began the implementation of its unprecedented ban on the burqa and niqab, full-body and face veils worn by some Muslim women.
Women wearing a niqab face fines
Parliament passed the ban last year with overwhelming support - only one member of the senate voted against it - making France the first country in the West to do so.
Police received a manual last week on how to enforce the ban, which only applies if the veils are worn in public. Officers may fine noncompliant women 150 euros ($216) and are not to remove the veils by force.
The law gives tougher penalties for anyone who forces a woman to wear the garments, with fines of up to 60,000 euros and up to two years in prison.
While France's Muslim community of 5 million is the largest in Western Europe, fewer than 2,000 women are estimated to actually wear the burqa or niqab.
The ban sparked controversy in France and across Europe, with opponents calling it an infringement of religious freedom. Supporters say the burqa and niqab are symbols of a fundamentalist brand of Islam, and that the ban protects women's rights.
Lawmakers in Belgium approved their own version of the ban last year and are likely to be looking at France's implementation for tips.
French police said they arrested 59 people on Saturday at a banned protest against the law.
Author: Dagmar Breitenbach, Andrew Bowen (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Michael Lawton