(Michel Euler ~ Associated Press)
Two veiled women were hauled off from a Paris protest within hours of the new ban. Their unauthorized demonstration, on the cobblestone square facing Notre Dame Cathedral, was rich with both the symbolism of France's medieval history and its modern spirit of defiance.
While some see encroaching Islamophobia in the new ban, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government defended it as a rampart protecting France's identity against inequality and extremism. Police grumbled that it will be hard to enforce.
"The law is very clear. Hiding your face in public places is cause for imposing sanctions," Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Monday at an EU meeting in Luxembourg. He said it defends "two fundamental principles: secularism and the principle of equality between man and woman."
The law affects barely 2,000 women who cloak themselves in the niqab, which has just a slit for the eyes, and the burqa, which has a mesh screen over the eyes, and it enjoyed widespread public support when it was passed last year.
But it has worried French allies, prompted protests abroad and has come to epitomize France's struggle to integrate Muslim immigrants in recent generations.
France is a traditionally Catholic country where church and state were formally separated more than a century ago, when Muslims were barely a presence. Today, it sees itself as a proudly secular nation: Few Catholics attend church regularly and small-town churches are crumbling -- while growing demand for prayer rooms means Muslims pray on sidewalks and streets.
Though only a small minority of France's some 5 million Muslims wear the veil, many Muslims see the ban as a stigma against the country's No. 2 religion. Many have also felt stigmatized by a 2004 law that banned Islamic headscarves in classrooms.
About a dozen people, including three women wearing niqab veils, staged a protest in front of Notre Dame on Monday, saying the ban is an affront to their freedom of expression and religion. Much larger crowds of police, journalists and tourists filled the square.
Two of the veiled women were taken away by police for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration, Paris police authority said. They were released later Monday after questioning. Amnesty International condemned the detention of the women and others at the protest.
It was unclear whether the women were also fined for wearing a veil.
The law says veiled women risk a $215 fine or attendance at special citizenship classes, though not jail. People who force women to don a veil are subject to up to a year in prison and a $43,000 fine, and possibly twice that if the veiled person is a minor.
The ban affects women who wear the niqab and the burqa.
The law is worded to skate safely through legal minefields: The words "women," "Muslim" and "veil" are not even mentioned. The law says it is illegal to hide the face in the public space, but makes exceptions to allow for motorcycle helmets, traditional ceremonies such as weddings or Carnival costumes.
While Italy also has a law against concealing the face for security reasons, France's law was the first conceived to target veil-wearers. Sarkozy said he wanted a ban, and that the veils are not welcome in France.
Moderate Muslim leaders in France and elsewhere agree that Islam does not require women to cover their faces, but many are uncomfortable with banning the veil.
The plans for a ban prompted protests in Pakistan last year and warnings from al-Qaida. It also has devout Muslim tourists skittish, since it applies to visitors as well as French citizens.
Kenza Drider, who lives in Avignon and wears a niqab, calls the ban racist. She said she would continue to wear her veil to go "shopping, to the post office and to City Hall if necessary. I will under no circumstance stop wearing my veil." "If I am warned verbally and must appear before the local prosecutor.... I will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights," she told AP Television News in Avignon.
The veil, for her, "is a submission to God," Drider said.
Police complained the law will be a challenge to enforce.
"The law will be infinitely difficult to apply, and it will be infinitely rarely applied, unfortunately," Emmanuel Roux of the police union SCPN said on France-Inter radio.
He said police have been instructed not to use force to remove veils, and that if a woman refuses to take one off, the police officer is supposed to call the prosecutor for further legal action. Only in very extreme cases, he said, would a woman be jailed for refusal to remove a veil.
The ban had strong support from France's leading parties on left and right.
"It's not a racist law. It's just a law that is coming from the history of France and so you need to accept it if you want to integrate into France and with French people," said Laurent Berrebe, an economist walking in central Paris on Monday.
Olfa Belmanaa, a nurse, expressed opposition. "In France, we are in a democratic country where everyone has the right to do what they want. If they want to wear a veil or go completely nude that's their right," she said.
Jeffrey Schaeffer and Camille Rustici in Paris and Raf Casert in Luxembourg contributed to this report.