If the French parliament's ban on the burka makes it through the Senate in September, a woman who goes out in the street wearing a full-faced veil will be subject to a 150-euro fine. If Rachid Nekkaz has his way, this won’t be a problem.
“I saw that the weakness of the law was the 150-euro fine,” he said recently. “I asked myself and my wife, can we pay it? The answer was yes, because this doesn’t concern millions of people.”
Indeed, estimates of those who regularly wear burkas in France range from 400 to 2,000.
Nekkaz, a businessman, whose parents immigrated to France from Algeria, and his Franco-American wife, Cecile Le Roux, have pledged a million euros of their own money to pay any fines that may arise from the law.
They are not doing this out of any kind of religious conviction. Rather, they see the law as an affront to constitutional rights in France.
Le Roux insists that neither she nor her husband believe in the burka.
“I don’t think it’s comfortable to talk to someone in a burka because it’s difficult to see the person,” she says. “However, what I do believe is that personal freedom is sacred in a democratic, Western country.”
This is a constitutional issue for them. And Nekkaz is no stranger to bringing attention to issues he cares about. He tried to get on the ballot for the 2007, which requries the endorsements of 500 mayros. One mayor decided to sell his in an auction, and Nekkaz bought it and ripped it up on television, to protest the selling of endorsements.
In early July, after the burka ban was passed by parliament, Nekkaz and Le Roux formed a group called Hands off my constitution to fight the law.
Nekkaz says he did not disagree with the law as it was originally conceived, which would have banned the wearing of full-face veils in public indoor spaces, like social security offices, banks and restaurants.
But the version that was passed in July is a complete ban.
“I am for the banning of the burka in closed public spaces, like banks and supermarkets,” says Nekkaz. “But I cannot accept that the fear of Islam or the fear of fundamentalism would reduce our constitutional liberties in the street. In a democracy, liberty on the street is sacred. You don’t touch it.”
The couple has already set aside about 200,000 euros of their own money, and another 50,000 has come in from donations, as the project has gained attention. The million-euro pledge comes from a piece of property they own in a southern Paris suburb that they have put on the market for a million euros, which they say will go to the fund.
Le Roux says the amount of money available to pay the fines will neutralise the law, if it comes into effect and is enforced. Women will be encouraged to send them the bills.
“This fund exists so that all women who want to wear a burka in public feel confident that not only can they make their first violation, but they can make repeated violations, and we’ll be fine to cover them.”
There has been little official reaction to this project, which Le Roux calls “a private citizens' dissidence organisation”.
MP Eric Raoult, who headed the parliamentary commission that recommended the law in the first place, says Nekkaz is standing in the way of the real issue.
“Mr Nekkaz could maybe participate,” he says. “Rather than raise money, I’d rather he’d participate with us in this citizenship action: to explain to women who wear the full veil that they should take it off.”
Raoult represents a district that includes north-eastern Paris suburbs, home to many Muslims - French and immigrant. He says the burka ban was never intended to penalise women, but to make them to decide on their own not to wear it.
In fact, he says he’s seen that women have already stopped wearing them as much, even though the law has not even passed.
“I have seen many young women who had been wearing a full veil, taking it off. They are now wearing headscarves that show their faces,” he says of people in his district. “Since we’ve been talking about this practice, we’ve started to see fewer of them. So at the end of the day, we’ve reached our goal.”
But Nekkaz and his wife say that the issue is not about the burka, but about the freedom to wear what you want in the street. La Roux says she is frustrated that not many people are speaking up about this aspect of the law.
“Not a single French intellectual has said anything about this,” she says. “You start with one small, personal civil liberty, and then it’s a slippery slope.”
“Somebody should speak up,” she adds. “Somebody could criticize us for trying to grab attention. Well, yes, we are trying to grab attention, because it’s an issue that merits attention!”
They have gained media attention, as well as the attention of the tax authorities. Nekkaz had already been investigated for a previous action in which he had posted 50,000 euros of bail for a friend, an attorney, whose conviction for having helped someone break out of prison was overthrown on appeal. Nekkaz insisted that Karim Achoui was falsely convicted. He had formed a support committe and had gone on hunger strike in front of the prison where Achoui was being held.
The tax investigation lasted a year, and it was recently renewed, says Le Roux, in a letter sent four days after she and Nekkaz announced the new project on the burka.
“We received an official letter saying it is extended a year, to investigate all of my fiscal activities abroad,” she says, adding that the timing cannot be a coincidence. “It definitely does seem to coincide with our activities with every case.”
But, she says, this will not deter them. They are planning a public action for the spring, when the ban would come into effect if it is passed by the Senate in September.
In the meantime, they are looking north, to Belgium, where women wearing burkas are already subject to a 25-euro fine. They think they could start paying their fines as well.