French MPs in doubt over headscarf ban

21st January 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 21 (AFP) - Days ahead of its presentation before the French parliament, doubts were appearing Wednesday over the feasibility of a proposed new law banning the Islamic headscarf in schools, with growing warnings that it will create more problems than it solves.

PARIS, Jan 21 (AFP) - Days ahead of its presentation before the French parliament, doubts were appearing Wednesday over the feasibility of a proposed new law banning the Islamic headscarf in schools, with growing warnings that it will create more problems than it solves.

Legislators from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and the opposition Socialists were meeting separately to work out their positions on the bill, amid calls for a no vote - or at least abstention - from a significant number of influential political figures.

 Confusion over the text - which bans "signs and clothing which conspicuously display a pupil's religious affiliation" - was only increased Tuesday when Education Minister Luc Ferry told a parliamentary committee that this could include bandanas worn with the wrong intent or "mere hairiness."

The headscarf ban was agreed by President Jacques Chirac last month with the aim of enforcing France's strict secularism in the classroom, but it has provoked an angry backlash from many Muslims - at home and abroad - who believe their are being singled out for discrimination.

A series of demonstrations on Saturday by supporters of the headscarf sparked new warnings that the proposed ban will aggravate relations with the estimated five million-strong Muslim community, rather than encourage their integration.

Francois Bayrou, who heads the UMP's coalition partner the Union for French Democracy (UDF), said he "feared from the start that such a law, which of course goes down well in the polls, would quickly heighten tensions and offer the fundamentalists an opening which they could only have dreamed of."

His words echoed former prime minister Edouard Balladur of the UMP who said that while he opposed the headscarf in school existing legislation was sufficient to cope with the problems that arose. "I am not convinced that a law will not poison things more than it resolves them," he said.

Claude Guasguen, vice-president of the UMP group in the National Assembly, said the issue was "getting out of control," and warned of the "unforeseen consequences of a debate whose aim was to ensure tolerance but which ends in a climate of tension, dominated by racism, anti-Semitism and violence."

The proposed ban enjoys the support of around 70 percent of the French public, according to polls, and so far warnings about its applicability have come mainly from abroad where French "secularism" is widely seen as a worthy but unrealistic ideal.

Outsiders have asked how for example the law will effect France's small community of 6,000 Sikhs, whose turbans are a clear statement of religious affiliation but have till now prompted no hostility.

Speaking before the National Assembly's Social Affairs committee, Ferry - who drew up the text of the law - sought to explain it further, saying that the list of banned items could be extended beyond headscarves, "large" Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David if pupils tried to get around the law.

"One can invent religious signs from mere hairiness. When a beard is transformed into a religious symbol it will fall under the law. Creativity is infinite in the matter," Ferry said.

Similarly a bandana, if worn by a Muslim girl as a deliberate way of advertising her faith, would also be banned. As for Sikhs, they could be persuaded to wear "invisible nets" on their heads instead of turbans.

"Discussions are being held," Ferry said.

"We have opened Pandora's box," said one UMP deputy, who asked not to be named.

The bill is to be put before the cabinet next Wednesday before an opening debate in the National Assembly on February 3.

© AFP

                                Subject: France news

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