STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has a low approval rating, and faces a presidential election next year. And he's also staked out some strong positions on sensitive issues. In a moment, we'll hear about France's military involvement in two African nations.

INSKEEP: We begin with France's new law banning the Muslim veil, which takes effect today. It's known in France as the burqa, or nikab, and it can no longer be worn in public. Sarkozy campaigned for this ban, saying the veil goes against French values of secularism and equality of the sexes. Eleanor Beardsley has this report.

(soundbite of praying)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: On a warm spring afternoon, the faithful gather for Friday prayers at a mosque in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers. The imam tells the man to scoot closer.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: You know there is an Islamophobic climate here right now, and the police don't like to see us praying in the streets, he says.

Outside the makeshift mosque, which is housed in an old office building, men kneel on carpets. Rachid Zaieri says for the most part, it's fine being a Muslim in France - though he admits in the last few years, there has been a rise in political talk against Islam. And this burqa ban is part of that, he says.

Mr. RACHID ZAIERI: (Through Translator) We don't feel this law is sincere. It doesn't mean we're for the burqa. But we think this law is just an excuse to tell French people watch out, there's a growing Muslim population that you should be afraid of.

BEARDSLEY: Many Muslims here blame President Nicolas Sarkozy for what they say is an anti-Muslim climate in France today. They say the French president creates debates around Islam so that people will forget about the real problems, like the economy.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: In the women's section of the mosque, everyone wears loose and long-fitting clothing and a headscarf. But only a scarce few wear the niqab - a full, face-covering veil that leaves just a slit for the eyes. Even by the French government's own estimates, fewer than 2,000 women across the country wear the niqab. Twenty-two-year-old Someya, who doesn't want to give her last name, is one of them.

SOMEYA: (Through Translator) I feel like I'm doing something higher. I'm wearing it for God and for my husband, so that he'll be the only person who can see me and be able to appreciate my face.

BEARDSLEY: Someya says she'll take off her niqab today because she has no choice. But she believes the government is infringing on her personal freedoms.

Eighteen-year-old Sarah Morvan, a Muslim convert who also wears the niqab, has just pulled on her long, black gloves and stepped out into the street. Not a bit of skin is showing. Morvan says she will not remove her veil, and the new law will only force her to stay at home more often with her 3-month-old daughter, who she pushes in a stroller, in the afternoon sun.

Ms. SARAH MORVAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: It's a very emotional experience to wear the niqab, says Morvan, who embraced wearing it two years ago. You are sheltered from all onlookers, and completely cut off from society.

That is exactly why the French government is banning it. Sarkozy says the niqab and the burqa isolate women, and take away their humanity. The French immigration minister called the burqa a walking coffin.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

So starting today, police will ask women to uncover their face and show ID. If they refuse, they could be fined up to $200, and forced to attend a civics class. The punishment is stiffer for any man caught forcing a woman to cover her face. He will be subject to a fine of up to $40,000, and face possible jail time.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Aubervilliers is 70 percent Muslim. Many, like cafe owner Kamel Mesbah, say they understand the intent of the law - to weaken what he calls the burqa culture.

Mr. KAMEL MESBAH: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: You can't have things like men and women refusing to shake each other's hands, and separate hours for boys and girls at the public swimming pool, he says. That's just not France.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Aubervilliers.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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