France’s Socialist government today pledged to toughen up its anti face-covering law after a veiled Muslim woman was ejected from a major Paris opera house.
In an incident which has divided opinion in the city’s liberal arts community, cast members performing La Traviata ‘objected strongly’ to the presence of a woman in the audience wearing a niqab-type veil.
‘A singer spotted her in the front row during the second act,’ said Jean-Philippe Thiellay, director of the Bastille Opera, which was opened by Socialist president Francois Mitterand in 1989.
‘Some performers said they didn’t want to sing,’ said Mr Thiellay, who confirmed that she was kicked out.
There has been a ban on Muslims covering their face in public in France since the introduction of a law in 2011.
Women living on housing estates on the outskirts of major cities like Paris are regularly criminalized with a fine, but this is the first incident of someone being ejected from an artistic venue.
So far unnamed, she is believed to be a well-off woman from a Gulf State, and was attending the performance with a friend.
Referring to a security guard, Mr Thiellay said: ‘He told her that in France there is a ban of this nature, asked her to either uncover her face or leave the auditorium.
‘The man asked the woman to get up, they left. It was unpleasant getting her to leave.
‘But there was a misunderstanding of the law and the lady either had to respect it or leave,’But other opera lovers in a city historically renowned for its tolerance were less impressed.
‘What possible harm could a woman sitting quietly in the audience with face covered do to anyone?’ said Guy Laurent, a regular at the Bastille Opera.
‘The woman would clearly have felt utterly humiliated by what happened – French culture should be more tolerant.
‘It is not the job of theatres to enforce petty laws.’
The incident happened on October 3, but it is only now that it is becoming a national polemic.
Technically the woman now faces a fine of just over £180, although there is not thought to have been any police involvement.
The woman and her friend were not refunded any of their ticket price.
A spokesman for France’s Ministry of Culture today said it was ‘producing a new set of rules’ to make sure the so-called ‘burka ban’ was better enforced in theatres, museums and other public institutions.
France,which is home to some five million Muslims, was the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public places.
Belgium followed suit soon afterwards, but there is no veil ban at all in Britain, despite calls by a minority of right wing MPs for one.