- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2011

PARIS | France’s new ban on Islamic veils faced a burst of defiance Monday, as several women appeared with faces covered outside Notre Dame Cathedral and two were detained for taking part in an unauthorized protest.

France is the first country to ban the veils anywhere in public, from outdoor marketplaces to the sidewalks and boutiques of the tony Champs-Elysees.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy began advocating for the ban nearly two years ago, saying the veils imprison women and contradict this secular nation’s values of dignity and equality. The ban enjoyed wide public support when it was approved by parliament last year.

“It’s not a racist law. It’s just a law that is coming from the history of France and so you need to accept it if you want to integrate into France and with French people,” insisted Laurent Berrebe, an economist walking in central Paris on Monday.

Kenza Drider, who lives in Avignon and wears a veil, called the ban racist.

“I will under no circumstance stop wearing my veil,” she said. “If I am warned verbally and must appear before the local prosecutor, I will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.”

Though only a very small minority of France’s 5 million Muslims wear the veil, many Muslims see the ban as a stigma against the country’s No. 2 religion.

Moderate Muslim leaders in France and elsewhere agree that Islam does not require women to cover their faces, but many are uncomfortable with banning the veil. Religious leaders have denounced the measure and are struggling with what to advise the faithful.

The ban affects women who wear the niqab, which has just a slit for the eyes, and the burqa, which has a mesh screen over the eyes.

About a dozen people, including three women wearing the niqab, staged a protest in front of Notre Dame, saying the ban is an affront to their freedom of expression and religion.

A police officer said authorities detained one woman because the protest was unauthorized and she refused to leave when police asked her to. The Paris police administration said another woman also was detained for taking part in the unauthorized demonstration.

The law authorizes a $215 fine but no jail time for violators. However, courts can impose a $43,000 fine and a year in prison for those who force women to wear veils. The punishments can double if the veiled person is a minor.