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France: Head-Scarf Ban Coming Into Force Amid Iraqi Hostage Drama

France's controversial law banning Islamic head scarves and other conspicuous signs of religious faith from public schools has been thrust back into the spotlight following the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq. The journalists were videotaped saying they may be killed if the ban is not lifted by late today.

Prague, 31 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georges Turrin is headmaster of the Saint-Exupery school in the French Mediterranean port of Marseille. The majority of its 1,600 students have Muslim backgrounds.

Turrin told RFE/RL that he does not believe the legislation banning Islamic head scarves and other symbols of religious identification answers the fundamental question of how secularism can be applied to public schools:

"In the first place, [the new law] was perceived as an attack against one religion, [Islam]. This was a mistake to avoid," Turrin said. "The law is being fought. It has not produced a consensus, including among [religious representatives,] teachers, and parents. It will be tough for us because there is no common approach on what secularism is and how it applies to schools."

In March, the French parliament passed a law banning "conspicuous symbols" of faith from its state school system. The law identifies Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses as unacceptable religious signs.

The majority of the French population, and lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum, had voiced support for the law, which reaffirms the separation of religion and state, a constitutionally guaranteed principle that is a core French value.
The law identifies Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses as unacceptable religious signs.

The conviction among many French is that the head-scarf dispute is part of a plan by radical Islamic groups to secure a stronger position in France.

Turrin said he fears the new law will create a split among religious communities. He stressed that students need to be explained the principles of secularism in a positive way, rather than by imposing a ban.

"Secularism is not the interdiction of religion [or] constraints on spirits and conscience," Turrin said. "To the contrary, it says religion belongs in the private sphere, which allows people with very different private lives to live together and build a multicultural [and] multireligious society."

Jean-Pierre Kleindienst is headmaster of the Claude-Monet school in the Atlantic port of Le Havre. About 20 percent of the school's 1,700 students are of Muslim background. Kleindienst said he fears the new law stigmatizes the Muslim community and suspects the cure may be worse than the disease.

"We will see in the coming year whether it has positive effects. Representations of the Muslim community have more or less radical positions and some of them are provocative," Kleindienst said. "So I think there are risks, and I expect to possibly have problems I never had before."

France's 5-million-strong Muslim community is the largest in Europe, and representatives have been largely supportive of the head-scarf ban and have come out to condemn the kidnappings in Iraq. Thousands of people marched yesterday in France to support the release of the two journalists, many of them Muslim women wearing head scarves. France opposed the war in Iraq.

Dalil Boubakeur is head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. Speaking yesterday in Paris, Boubakeur appealed for the release of the hostages.

"Our brothers in Iraq should know that we are in an explosive situation, and we ask for their understanding," Boubakeur said. "We ask them to accept our plea and free the two French journalists immediately and give them back to their families."

Boubakeur said he has heard from some Muslim women that if the head scarf "will be tainted with blood of victims, they don't want the head scarf."

Meanwhile, the kidnappers have extended until late tonight their deadline for the government in Paris to rescind the head-scarf ban. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier held talks today with his Jordanian counterpart Marwan Muasher on finding ways to secure the hostages' release.

In Cairo yesterday, Barnier defended the French law.

"Our constitution and laws have always guaranteed the same protection and the same freedom of conscience and religion to everyone who lives in our country," Barnier said. "The 5 million Muslims who live in France, just like everyone else, are guaranteed -- and it is our honor -- freedom and protection by the French Republic."

In an interview published yesterday in the daily "Le Figaro," the head of the fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), Lhaj Thami Breze, said: "We clearly accept the law and recognize that conspicuous [religious] clothing is forbidden [in public schools]." He called the kidnappers in Iraq the "enemies of Islam" and said all French Muslims "have been taken hostage."

Nevertheless, Breze -- who had previously spoken out against the ban -- said the UOIF will offer legal support to any schoolgirl who gets into trouble over more discreet displays of religion.

"The law forbids conspicuous signs, not visible signs. Schools want to forbid all visible signs," Breze said. "We will not defend girls with long head scarves. However, we will defend girls with less ostentatious scarves -- a headdress covering the hair only, not the neck. And it has to be accompanied by occidental, modern clothing."

There are guidelines about what schools should do if the law is flouted. Before suspending or expelling a child, schools must undertake a "dialogue" with the student about secularism. But this phase is not, the rules stresses, a time for negotiation.