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French MPs vote veil ban:cross-party majority of 458

PARIS, Feb 10 (AFP) – France’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday adopted a controversial bill that would ban Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols in schools despite opposition from its large Muslim population and criticism from abroad.

The text, put forward by President Jacques Chirac’s ruling centre-right party and supported by the left-wing opposition Socialists, was adopted by a vote of 494 to 36.

It will now be sent to the parliament’s upper house, the Senate, where Chirac’s UMP party has a large majority, and is expected to become law well in time for the start of the next school year in September.

Drafted in response to a rise in religious radicalism among the country’s estimated five million Muslims, the bill makes it illegal to wear clothes or signs that “conspicuously” display affiliation to a faith.

Though it does not specify the items that would be barred, an experts’ report listed the Jewish skullcap and “large” Christian crosses in addition to the Islamic headscarf.

Sikh turbans are also likely to be included, and Education Minister Luc Ferry has said bandanas and even beards could be barred if worn with the wrong intent.

The measure has the support of around 70 percent of the French population, and is strongly backed by teachers.

The Socialist opposition wanted the text to be toughened – with “visible” replacing “conspicuous” – but agreed to vote in favour after the UMP promised a review of the law in a year.

The government hopes the law will uphold France’s tradition of secularity – a strict separation of church and state that it argues promotes an ideal of French republicanism and brings together citizens from different backgrounds by filtering out religious differences.

But some of France’s Muslims have held demonstrations against the bill, as have some of the country’s generally discreet 7,000 Sikhs.

Outside of France, criticism has been made from organisations which view the move as a blow to religious freedom.

The Times of India newspaper said Tuesday that the issue in relation to the Sikhs would likely be raised when French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin visits to India later this week.

On Monday, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, based in Austria, said it was against the French bill because it believed it violated human rights.

A US group, the Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises Congress, the White House and State Department, said it, too, believed the proposed law could violate international human rights standards, although US Secretary of State Colin Powell said his government considered the debate “an internal matter for the French people and the French government to decide.”

Last month, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, grand mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, said that “interfering in the affairs of Muslims regarding the headscarf is an infringement on the human rights that they (French) say they are defending.”

A small minority of French deputies have expressed their doubts about the law, calling it unnecessary, unworkable and liable to inflame sentiment among a section of the population that already feels victimised by society.

“The Muslim community is going to feel stigmatised. The law will not treat the evil at its source – that is to say the problem of integration. That is the big mistake of a law that has set off this national psychodrama over secularism,” said Alain Madelin, who heads the liberal wing of the UMP.


                                                              Subject: France news