Flamboyant Rachid Nekkaz pledges €1m to pay fines of French Muslim women caught wearing the full veil
By Gavin Mortimer
ShareOn the eve of tomorrow's Bastille Day celebrations, there is more revolution in the air in France and this time the ringleader is a flamboyant Muslim businessman called Rachid Nekkaz. The 38-year-old property developer is incensed that France has moved one step closer to banning the burka, with women caught wearing the full veil in public liable to a €150 fine and anyone convicted of forcing a woman to cover up facing a fine of up to €30,000 and a year in prison.
The first stage in passing the controversial law was today approved in the National Assembly with members of the Lower House voting overwhelmingly - 335 votes for to one against - to introduce the ban. If the French senators in the Upper House ratify the proposal in September, it will become law by the spring of 2011.
Nekkaz (above), along with the majority of France's five million Muslims, is furious at what he sees as a persecution of his religion, pointing out that fewer than 2,000 French Muslims actually wear the full veil.
He has begun a campaign to fight the law and he's pledged one million euros of his own money to pay the fines of any Muslim convicted. Speaking outside the National Assembly, Nekkaz said: "One million sounds a lot, but to protect one's liberty it's not much, and I hope that others in this country who hold the constitution dear and want to protect our fundamental liberty will join me in fighting this law."
The debonair Nekkaz, a shining example of an integrated, modern French Muslim (he was born in France to Algerian parents), has set up a campaign group called 'Hands off my Constitution', and plans to raise the €1m by selling some of the properties he owns in the Parisian suburbs.
In front of the cameras he wrote a personal cheque for the seven-figure sum before describing the proposed law as 'Anti-Constitutional' and demanding that President Sarkozy shelves the idea.
That seems unlikely. Not only has Sarkozy described the full veil as degrading to women, but it's an issue that has the overwhelming support of his UMP party. Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said last week that wearing the veil "amounted to being cut off from society and rejecting the very spirit of the French republic that is founded on a desire to live together''.
And the likes of Nekkaz haven't been helped in fighting the law by the muddled approach of the opposition Socialist Party. They would like to see a ban restricted to state institutions. But that notion was ridiculed by Alliot-Marie, who said it would be "legally incoherent" and impossible to enforce. "How could we convince the French people that freedom, equality and respect for the dignity of women begins in the train station but stops at the exit?''
The Socialists abstained in today's vote in the Lower House and have said they will adopt a similar stance in September's Senate vote, in which case it seems certain the law will be written into the French Constitution. But the country's police force is bracing itself for a backlash. Security was increased at the National Assembly ahead of today's vote and there are fears of street riots if the bill is passed.