PARIS (Reuters) - France’s interior minister on Monday defended a ban on wearing full-face veils in public after a police check on a Muslim woman caused two nights of rioting near Paris, exposing tensions in immigrant-heavy suburbs.
The 2010 law was brought in by conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy and targets burqa and niqab garments that conceal the face, rather than the headscarf that is more common among French Muslim women.
A police check on a couple in the southwest suburb of Trappes provoked an angry confrontation that led overnight on Friday to a police station being surrounded by several hundred people, some hurling rocks. Another building was torched in several hours of street violence that led to six arrests.
“Police did their job perfectly,” Interior Minister Manuel Valls told RTL radio.
“The law banning full-face veils is a law in the interests of women and against those values having nothing to do with our traditions and values. It must be enforced everywhere,” he said.
The town of some 30,000 inhabitants, which has produced celebrities including soccer player Nicolas Anelka, was mostly calm on Monday as tow trucks carted away burnt cars.
Police made two further arrests in raids late on Sunday during which they were pelted with firecrackers from rooftops. Four other youths were due later on Monday to appear before a judge for sentencing.
But while Valls said that order had quickly been restored, opposition politicians accused him of minimizing violence, which he acknowledged had spread for a while to three nearby towns.
Hollande has said the suburbs should be treated like any other part of France, but his government was accused of refusing to recognize that France was failing to integrate Muslims.
“There is a denial of reality, a refusal to see that violence is rising,” said Jean-Francois Cope, head of the centre-right UMP party.
France counts Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated at around five million. Yet according to interior ministry figures only between 400 and 2,000 women wear the veil and only a handful have been ordered to pay a fine for wearing it.
The riots marked the first time the ban had led to an outbreak of violence. But it was not the first example of rioting under Hollande, who faced two days of riots in the northern city of Amiens shortly after becoming president.
Analysts have long debated the causes of such outbreaks of violence, with some pointing to economic and social factors such as the rise in youth unemployment. Around one in four youths are now jobless, a figure that is higher in many suburbs.
Others say the causes are more complex and point to efforts made by French authorities in recent years to regenerate such suburban zones. Trappes itself has just emerged from a seven-year renovation plan and in 2011 won an award for its parks and the attractiveness of its environment.
Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Mark John and Angus MacSwan