Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images
Lies Hebbadj and his wife, who was cited for driving her car while dressed in a full face-covering Islamic veil, talk to reporters on Friday. The government later alleged that Hebbadj is a polygamist with four wives.
Lies Hebbadj and his wife, who was cited for driving her car while dressed in a full face-covering Islamic veil, talk to reporters on Friday. The government later alleged that Hebbadj is a polygamist with four wives. Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images
What started as a simple traffic ticket has now escalated into a national political drama in France. At issue are individual liberties, Islamic dress and polygamy — and it's a combination that could prove helpful to President Nicolas Sarkozy and his efforts to pass a law that would ban the full Islamic veil in all public places.
It all began on April 2 in the western city of Nantes, when traffic police cited a woman for driving her car while dressed in a full face-covering Islamic veil. The police said her garment, a niqab, which leaves only a slit for the eyes, compromised her safety and that of other drivers.
The woman refused to pay the $30 fine. Instead, she called a news conference and denounced what she called the infringement of her rights.
"They had no right to give me a ticket for what I'm wearing," she said, still covered from head to toe in her black niqab.
The woman, who has not revealed her name, added: "This is complete discrimination. Between me and somebody wearing a motorcycle helmet, I can assure you that I see a lot better."
The woman's husband, Lies Hebbadj, who was also wearing traditional Muslim dress and has a beard, stood beside her during the conference.
The government later alleged that Hebbadj is a polygamist with four wives. Officials say all four women receive state welfare as single mothers to raise the man's 12 children. Hebbadj says he has just one wife and three mistresses — and having mistresses is not illegal in France, he adds.
The government is looking into revoking Habbadj's citizenship, which he acquired by marrying a French woman 10 years ago.
The story is now the talk of France. And it may encourage more people to support Sarkozy and his claim that the veil poses a real threat to French values.
French public opinion seems divided on the idea of a total ban on wearing the full veil in public places. Some worry the law would pointlessly alienate the country's large Muslim population. Only a tiny minority of women wear the full, face-covering veil.
Some politicians on the left have even accused Sarkozy of provoking the incident to help pass his law banning the full veil and to dictate the terms of the 2012 presidential race.
Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar and activist, says government ministers are trying to make political hay from a completely random event.
"The interior minister is throwing oil on the fire. And it is he who is not respecting French traditions," Ramadan says. "He is betraying the values on which this country was founded."
But Jean-Francois Cope, head of Sarkozy's majority conservative party in the French Parliament, says wearing a niqab has nothing to do with free expression.
"It's not only an article of clothing," he says. "Actually, it's a position. It's a choice which is not compatible with the rules of the republic."