A Muslim butcher who could be stripped of his French passport over allegations of polygamy hit back on Monday, insisting that he had not broken the law.

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Lies Hebbadj, an Algerian-born 35-year-old, has been at the centre of a political storm since last week when his wife complained that she had been fined for driving while wearing her “niqab” full-face veil.

The woman has refused to pay the fine and Hebbadj has taken her defence.

‘Four wives’

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux suggested the man could lose his French passport, saying he was believed to have four wives who had borne him 12 children and that each was receiving welfare benefits.

But Hebbadj called a news conference on Monday to contend that, while he has several mistresses, he had not engaged in polygamy, which is illegal in France.

“As far as I know, it is not forbidden to have mistresses in France, nor is it forbidden under Islam,” said Hebbadj, who runs a halal butcher shop in the western city of Nantes.

“Maybe under the Christian faith, but not in France,” he added.

“If you lose your French nationality for having mistresses, then a lot of French men would have been stripped of their citizenship.”

Immigration Minister Eric Besson is investigating whether Hebbadj should lose his French citizenship, which he acquired after marrying a French woman in 1999, although he has lived in France since the age of two.

Legislation to ban the burqa

The controversy over Hebbadj and his wife came as the government was preparing legislation to ban the wearing of the full-face veil. A draft law is to be presented to ministers next month.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said the full veil, known as the burqa or the niqab, is not welcome in France, calling it an affront to French values that denigrates women.

Police stopped Hebbadj’s 31-one-year-old wife in Nantes on April 2 and fined her 22 euros (29 dollars) on the grounds that her niqab restricted her view so she could not drive safely.

Sarkozy’s critics have accused him of pandering to the far-right following his party’s humiliating defeat in regional elections last month, by resorting to measures such as the ban on the full Islamic veil.

French support burqa ban

Polls show 64 percent of the French support either a complete ban on the burqa or at least outlawing it from state institutions across France, which is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority.

The head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), an official body grouping Muslim leaders, on Monday lamented that the polygamy row had been inflated by the media.

“If there was polygamy, the laws are clear on that and Muslims in France are respectful of laws,” said CFCM president Mohamed Moussaoui.

Mosque attack

Moussaoui noted that, in contrast, little had been reported on a weekend gun attack on a mosque in southern France that “left many citizens of the Muslim faith feeling frightened.”

The mosque in Istres, a town northwest of Marseille, was pockmarked by some 30 bullets fired by gunmen in the early hours on Sunday, according to police.

A spokesman for Sarkozy’s governing UMP party likened the allegations of polygamy and welfare fraud to a “type of human slave trade” that should be taken seriously.

French press reports said Hebbadj was a member of a Pakistani-linked Tabligh group and had been under police surveillance for years.