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France: Parliament bans head scarves from public schools

Bucking protests at home and abroad, France's parliament definitively adopted a law banning Islamic head scarves in public schools, with the Senate giving its overwhelming approval.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

Bucking protests at home and abroad, France's parliament definitively adopted a law banning Islamic head scarves in public schools, with the Senate giving its overwhelming approval. The Senate voted 276-20 Wednesday in favor of the measure, mirroring the strong support of the National Assembly, the lower chamber, which passed the legislation 494-36 Feb. 10 after a marathon debate.

President Jacques Chirac must now sign the legislation into law within 15 days. The conservative president pressed for such a law, saying it was needed to protect the French principle of secularism, which is constitutionally guaranteed, and stop the spread of Muslim fundamentalism in France.

The law forbids religious apparel and signs that "conspicuously show" a student's religious affiliation. Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses also would be banned. However, authorities have made clear that the law is aimed at removing Islamic head scarves from classrooms.

French leaders hope the law will quell debate over head scarves that has divided France since 1989, when two young girls were expelled from their school in Creil, outside Paris, for wearing the head coverings. Scores more have been expelled since then. However, the law- to take effect with the start of the new school year in September- is seen as discriminatory by many French Muslims and has triggered protests around the globe.

An audiotape with a voice attributed to the top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri, aired Feb. 24 on the Arabic TV station Al-Arabiya, said the French measure "is another example of the Crusader's malice, which Westerns have against Muslims." Authorities have not commented on the tape but security was stepped up around Chirac, who was on a state visit at the time. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in a surprise visit to the Senate on Wednesday, said that France must begin explaining the law to others.

"It is clear that on the international level the question is not always understood," Raffarin said in a first public reaction to protesters overseas. The measure "could be perceived as sectarian."

"We must not consider this to be a minor situation," Raffarin said, adding that French missions abroad must "try to reassure those who are concerned."

Raffarin insisted, however, that the law was needed to ensure that the principle of secularism on which modern-day France is based remains in tact and contain the spread of Muslim fundamentalism. "We wanted to send a strong and rapid signal," the prime minister said.

In the latest protests, some 6,000 students in Cairo demonstrated Monday at the Islamic Al-Azhar University, where the head scarf is compulsory for women.

A day earlier, more than 2,000 Muslims, mainly veiled women, braved wintry conditions in Amman, Jordan, to protest France's plan to ban head scarves in public schools.

Officials in Western nations, too, have voiced concern, with Sweden's Integration Minister Mona Sahlin saying last month that the law was "deeply xenophobic."

The bill stipulates that "in schools, junior high schools and high schools, signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden." It would not apply to students in private schools or to French schools in other countries. Sanctions for refusing to remove offending apparel would range from a warning to temporary suspension to expulsion. Mostly Roman Catholic France has an estimated 5 million Muslims _ the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.

Not taken into account when the legislation, only three articles, was written is France's 4,000-strong Sikh community. Education Minister Luc Ferry is to meet with representatives of the Sikhs on March 10 to discuss how the law may, or may not, apply to the distinctive turbans warn by Sikhs.

"We're going to find an amicable solution," Ferry said at a February news conference. "We must respect the traditions of this community."

Leaders of the main Muslim fundamentalist organization, the Union for Islamic Organizations of France, have said they were asking young girls to wear bandannas to school rather than more conspicuous head scarves. However, it was not clear whether bandannas would be acceptable.

There had been no doubt that that the measure would be passed, although it was not clear whether it would be forced to return to the lower chamber with fresh amendments.

However the Senate, controlled like the lower house by conservatives like Chirac, dismissed 23 proposed amendments raised during two days of debate. The amendments were offered mainly by the left.

The law is to be re-examined after a year in force to see whether the text should be changed to replace "conspicuous" by "visible."

The opposition Socialists had argued during the lower house debate that "visible" is a less ambiguous term that would make the law easier to apply.

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST