- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2011

PARIS — Kenza Drider’s posters for the French presidential race are ready to go, months before the official campaign begins.

There she is, the “freedom candidate,” pictured standing in front of a line of police - a forbidden veil hiding her face.

Ms. Drider declared her longshot candidacy on Sept. 22, the same day that a French court fined two women who refuse to remove their veils.

All three are among a group of women mounting an attack on the law that has banned the garments from the streets of France since April, and prompted similar moves in other European countries.

They are bent on proving that the ban violates fundamental rights and that women who hide their faces stand for freedom, not submission.

“When a woman wants to maintain her freedom, she must be bold,” Ms. Drider told the Associated Press in an interview.

President Nicolas Sarkozy strongly disagrees, and says the veil imprisons women.

Polls show that most French people support the ban, which authorities estimate affects fewer than 2,000 women who wore the veil before the ban.

Ms. Drider declared her candidacy in Meaux, the city east of Paris run by top conservative lawmaker and Sarkozy ally Jean-Francois Cope, who championed the ban.

“I have the ambition today to serve all women who are the object of stigmatization or social, economic or political discrimination,” she said. “It is important that we show that we are here, we are French citizens and that we, as well, can bring solutions to French citizens.”

Two other women arrested wearing veils in Meaux - while trying to deliver a birthday cake to Cope - were fined in court on Sept. 22: one $163, the other $109.

They want to push their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

“We cannot accept that women be punished because they are openly practicing their religious convictions. We are demanding the application of European rights,” said one of those convicted, Hind Ahmas.

With Islam the second religion in France and numbers of faithful growing, there are worries that veiled Muslim women could compromise the nation’s secular foundations and undermine gender equality and women’s dignity.

There are also concerns that practices such as wearing full veils could open the door to a radical form of Islam. Lawmakers banned Muslim headscarves in classrooms in 2004.

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