France readies for first dayof headscarf ban

1st September 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 1 (AFP) - France's controversial law banning the Islamic headscarf in schools will be tested for the first time when the new term opens Thursday, with the hostage crisis in Iraq adding an unpredictable new dimension to the return to classes.

PARIS, Sept 1 (AFP) - France's controversial law banning the Islamic headscarf in schools will be tested for the first time when the new term opens Thursday, with the hostage crisis in Iraq adding an unpredictable new dimension to the return to classes.  

Some 12 million pupils attending 60,000 primary and 11,000 secondary schools are obliged to heed a "secularity law" passed by President Jacques Chirac's centre-right government in March, which prohibits the wearing of symbols or clothing that "conspicuously" display religious identity.  

Though the law is framed so that no religion is singled out - Jewish stars of David, large Christian crosses and Sikh turbans are also banned - no-one disputes that the main target is the headscarf worn by increasing numbers of teenage Muslim girls.  

Education authorities in areas of high Arab immigration such as Alsace in the east, the Belgian border region and the northern suburbs of Paris are on high alert in case of trouble, and teams of mediators are on stand-by to intervene in any dispute.  

Many Muslim faithful believe they are being victimised by the law, and some girls could deliberately arrive in headscarfs to provoke a showdown. Many others may be ignorant of the exact provisions and believe an adapted head-dress is acceptable.  

There have also been rumours that teenagers could stage a symbolic protest by wearing the "Phrygian cap" - the revolutionary symbol of French democracy - or headscarfs in the red, white and blue of the national flag.  

However the government appeared relatively optimistic that the day would pass smoothly, not least because the hostage drama in Iraq has created a united sense of outrage across the country and defused any desire for confrontation.  

Two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, are being held by Islamic extremists in Iraq who are demanding the repeal of the headscarf ban in schools, but the blackmail has been fiercely condemned by French Muslim leaders - including the most vocal critics of the law.  

Prominent radicals such as theologian Tariq Ramadan and Lhaj Thami Breze of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF) - close to the Muslim Brotherhood - have called the hostage-taking an immoral interference in French domestic affairs and are urging obedience to the law despite their misgivings.   

Politicians have paid lavish tribute to the reaction of the Muslim leadership, seeing their denunciation of the kidnappers as a sign of maturity and integration.

The government hopes the same spirit will prevail as the headscarf law undergoes its first trial Thursday.  

The chances of a public showdown will be in any case limited because school authorities are under instructions not to automatically exclude any pupil wearing an item that breaks the law, but to embark on a period of dialogue that could last several days.  

However in the longer term the scope for argument remains large.

Prior to the hostage crisis the UOIF was telling Muslim girls that the law permitted  "discreet" religious insignia and that this definition included bandanas and other headcoverings.  

"The ban on headcoverings in school is not universal," the organisation said in July. However many school-heads interpret the law as banning any headcovering worn with religious intent, and the discrepancy could open the way to considerable confusion and litigation.  

Introduced as a result of a report last year which warned against the breakdown of society into racial and faith-based groups, the "secularity law" was designed to reinforce the strict separation of religion and state which has been an article of faith in France for a century.  

The law was also supposed to end the uncertainty that prevailed under the previous school regulations which outlawed only "ostentatious" religious signs - a formulation that was prey to widely differing interpretations.

 

© AFP

 

Subject: French news

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