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Traffic citation over full veil turns into polygamy investigation

In record time, the matter of a 31-year-old woman cited for driving while wearing a full veil that leaves only an opening for the eyes has escalated into: a potential investigation of her husband for polygamy and public assistance fraud that could lead to his denaturalization and expulsion; debate over religious obligations versus women’s rights; and a polemic over national identity and the reach of government.

In a letter to his immigration counterpart, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux had asked that the husband, identified in news reports as Lies Hebbadj, be investigated over suspicions that he has four wives and 12 children who are receiving government assistance at taxpayers’ expense, and that he is tied to an extremist group called the Tabligh.

If it can be proven that he broke French laws, the interior minister is asking that the man be stripped of the French nationality he acquired by marriage in 1999 and face deportation to his native Algeria. Proving polygamy, which is illegal in France, could be difficult if the man was not married in civil ceremonies to each of his supposed wives.

Though the husband has remained silent on the advice of his lawyer, the woman, from Nantes in western France, described to journalists how she was pulled over earlier this month and fined 22 euros for driving with clothing that potentially hindered her field of vision. She is contesting the fine, but now the matter of the ticket has been eclipsed by the allegations against her husband and debate over the circumstances under which a person can be stripped of French citizenship. 

While she has not been named publicly, their images — hers wearing a black niqab that covers most of her face and his wearing a long robe and sporting a beard — have been widely disseminated.  News reports also indicate that the husband owns several small businesses, including a halal butcher shop, and has been lobbying to build a mosque in his area.

A government spokesman, Frederic Lefebvre, said in a radio interview over the weekend that he supported Hortefeux's efforts to bring the husband’s purported transgressions to the attention of Eric Besson, the immigration minister.

Conspiracy theorists, especially from the opposition, are having a field day with the timing of the brouhaha, just a few days after the president announced he wanted go ahead with plans to implement legislation that would ban the full Islamic covering or niqab, which leaves an opening for the eyes. Some have commented publicly that the government is exploiting the matter for political gain.

Several incidents over the last year, including this latest one, have been criticized for stigmatizing Islam. After the announcement last week that the government would introduce a bill next month to seek to ban the face-covering veil, Paris’ main mosque issued a statement saying that the covering garment was not a religious obligation for Muslims.