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France: Expulsion Of Teens From School Heats Up Controversy Over Head Scarves

Two girls have been expelled from their school on the outskirts of Paris for wearing Muslim head scarves. It's the latest move in a debate over whether wearing head scarves in public schools represents a breach of the country's century-old separation of religion and state.

Prague, 13 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two French sisters, 18-year-old Lila and 16-year-old Alma Levy, were suspended at the end of September from their high school in the northern suburbs of Paris after refusing to remove their traditional Muslim dress.

A disciplinary board meeting on 10 October decided to expel the two students after they refused to comply with a dress code banning "ostentatious" religious symbols in French schools. The sisters were wearing head scarves that covered everything but their faces, as well as long tunics that hid the remainder of their bodies.

Alma and Lila maintain they were not flaunting their religion. Their father, who describes himself as an atheist Jew, characterized the board's decision as "academic apartheid" and is promising to launch an appeal.

Michel Tubiana, president of the Paris-based Human Rights League, calls the move a defeat for dialogue and secularism. "These young girls were following all classes, which is essential for us. And despite the fully detestable meaning of the scarf [at school], [wearing it] comes under their freedom of conscience only. I think that those who decided this expulsion have forgotten that the only way to make things evolve is precisely the teaching given by the republic's school system," Tubiana said.

Worn by some Muslim women as a sign of modesty, the head scarf -- or "hijab" in Arabic -- has become a sensitive issue in France. Mouloud Aounit, head of the antiracist Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples (MRAP), says the expulsions point out what he called the "Islamophobia" currently reigning across France. Lila and Alma, he said, are not Islamic radicals.

However, Agence France Presse quoted Remi Duloquin, educational counselor at the school, as describing the girls as "militants" and saying their presence upsets the balance inside the school. The school's student body is made up largely of the children of Muslim immigrants. About 15 other young girls wear a more revealing head scarf without the accompanying tunic.

France's principle of separation of religion and state bars the display of any religious symbols in state schools. And Richard Serero stresses that secularity is not negotiable. He is first vice president of the Paris-based International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA).

"LICRA's position is the republican law -- secularity, full secularity, and only secularity. No exception. No head scarves at school. No religious signs at school. It's crystal clear," Serero said.

In practice, however, school authorities across the country decide themselves on a case-by-case basis whether to implement the rule. There have been expulsions of Muslim girls wearing head scarves before, but the current case has raised the heat under a national French commission mulling whether to recommend a tightening of the rules on the issue. The panel is due to report back to President Jacques Chirac by the end of the year.

To some advocates of tougher laws, head scarves are perceived as a provocation. Jacques Myard is a member of the ruling conservative UMP coalition in the French National Assembly. "In our schools, there have been no signs of religions of any kind for a century now," he said. "It has been just for a few years that it has been an attempt by [some] Muslims to try to impose the head scarf to show the other people that they are Muslims."

The Human Rights League's Tubiana, however, said tightening the law would put France in contradiction with its constitution and its international commitments to protecting freedom of religious beliefs. Besides, he noted, such a move would further stigmatize the French Muslim community. "In reality, the daily wearing of any religious sign is not targeted, but only the Muslim head scarf. So a law would be totally inappropriate," Trubiana said.

Others warn that a tougher law would only boost support for the Islamist fringe. France, traditionally a Roman Catholic country, has Europe's largest Muslim minority, with about 5 million faithful.

Last month in Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the Baden-Wurttemberg state was wrong to deny a job to an Afghan-born teacher who was wearing a head scarf. The country's highest court argued that the state has no laws banning such displays. The court said the state could ban head scarves if it passes a law to that effect, prompting a number of German states to announce plans to do so.

(RFE/RL's Tanya Kancheva contributed to this report.)