The fining of a French Muslim woman for driving whilst wearing a niqab, or face veil, has somersaulted, in the space of a weekend, from political embarrassment to political windfall for President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Controversy raged yesterday after the Government alleged that the husband of the fined woman was a suspected polygamist and social security fraud with possible links to an extreme Islamist organisation. The interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, who made the allegations in a letter released to the press, was accused by moderate Muslim groups and left-wing politicians of cynical "exploitation" of the affair for political gain.
The media spotlight instantly switched over the weekend to Anne's husband, Lies Hebbadj, 35, an Algerian-born butcher and taxi operator, said to be living in three bungalows near Nantes with his 12 children and four or maybe three, fully-veiled women.
In a letter to the immigration minister, which was released to the press, Mr Hortefeux said that "according to information at my disposal", Mr Hebbadj belonged to a radical Islamist group called Tabligh. The minister said that Mr Hebbadj was "thought to be living in a polygamous situation with four women". Each woman was "believed to be" claiming benefit as a single mother.
Mr Hortefeux said that he had asked for an investigation into "possible polygamy and social security fraud". He urged the immigration minister to consider action to revoke Mr Hebbadj's French nationality (acquired when he married Anne in 1999).
By associating the veil with extremist movements, polygamy and fraud, the government evidently hopes to seize control of a "burqa" debate which had threatened to spin out of its control. It was announced last week, after months of indecision, that the Government would use emergency procedures to push through a complete ban on the burqa (full-length veil) or niqab (detachable face veil) in public places by July.
According to an opinion poll yesterday, only 33 per cent of French people support a ban. Another 31 per cent approve of banning burqas and niqabs from public buildings like hospitals and schools. The decision to push ahead with a full ban – against official advice – has been widely interpreted in the press as an attempt by Mr Sarkozy to prop up his failing presidency by pleasing his core, hard-right supporters.
Hence the scarcely concealed Government glee at the alleged activities of Mr Hebbadj, the husband of the veiled driver of Nantes. In a statement yesterday, the combined mosques of Nantes said that all Muslims were being "stigmatised" by the "exploitation" of an "insignificant event, which is not representative of the Muslim majority".
The mayor of Nantes, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is the leader of the Socialist main opposition group in the National Assembly, accused the Government of "dramatising and exploiting" the affair. "This man's situation has been known for some time to the services of the State ... Why was nothing done about him? Why are they pretending to discover the facts now?" Mr Ayrault asked.
See also AFP, 25 April 2010
The AFP report notes that while polygamy is a criminal offence in France this applies only to civil marriages conducted by a state official. If Lies Hebbadj is "living in a polygamous situation" with several women, without having contracted civil marriages with them, then he has committed no crime under French law. As for the accusation that the women said to be living with him are claiming state benefits as single mothers, from a legal standpoint that is exactly what they are, so it is difficult to see how a charge of social security fraud could be made to stick. And the "extremist" organisation of which Mr Hebbadj is supposed to be a member would appear to be Tablighi Jamaat, a socially conservative but non-political and entirely peaceful organisation that has millions of adherents across the world. Furthermore, it is unclear how any of this would provide grounds for Hebbadj being stripped of his French nationality, as Hortefeux is proposing. In short, what have here is not just cynical exploitation but a complete misrepresentation of the situation by the French government.
Update: See "Muslim says mistresses are the French way of life", Associated Press, 27 April 2010