Raffarin vows no fudge on headscarf ban

26th January 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 25 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Sunday reaffirmed his government's determination to push through a law banning the Islamic headscarf in schools, despite growing concerns about its feasibility.

PARIS, Jan 25 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Sunday reaffirmed his government's determination to push through a law banning the Islamic headscarf in schools, despite growing concerns about its feasibility.

"There will be a law on secularity," Raffarin told the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche in an interview.

 The prime minister said he would "present the text to the National Assembly on February 3 so it is made clear that the government speaks with one voice on this issue."

"It is important to show that the Republic... will not let itself be eaten away from within," Raffarin said.

The draft law, which bans "signs and clothing which conspicuously display a pupil's religious affiliation", 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 - both within France's five million-strong Muslim community and abroad - who believe they are being singled out for discrimination.

Raffarin dismissed that claim, telling the newspaper: "It has never been our intention to ban religious activity in our society, but only to protect the national education system from all conspicuous shows of religious belief."

"There is no ambiguity," the prime minister added. "The Republic is open and tolerant but it must also be firm and make sure that its values are respected."

The proposed law, which would also ban large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps from state schools, enjoys the support of about 70 percent of the French public, according to recent opinion polls.

Thousands of French Muslims demonstrated against the law on January 17, and there have been similar protests in a number of foreign countries.

Initially, warnings about the difficulty of applying the law came from abroad, but several influential political figures - both from the ruling party and the opposition Socialists - have voiced concerns about the text.

Former prime minister Edouard Balladur, a member of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), said while he opposed the wearing of headscarves in schools, existing laws were sufficient to cope with any eventual problems.

"I am not convinced that a law will not poison things more than it resolves them," he said.

Francois Bayrou, who heads the Union for French Democracy (UDF) - the UMP's coalition partner - 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."

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

Questions have been raised about how the law will be applied to France's 6,000 Sikhs, whose turbans are a clear statement of religious affiliation but until now have provoked no hostility.

The wearing of bandanas has also been questioned, with Ferry indicating last week that they could fall under the scope of the new law.

In the Sunday interview, Raffarin dismissed reports that Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin had criticized the law on the grounds that it would damage France's relations with Muslim states in the Middle East and Asia.

The prime minister said de Villepin's comments had been "maliciously" misinterpreted, and that de Villepin was known to back Chirac on the law.

© AFP

                                Subject: France news

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