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French Senate approves headscarf ban

Published on 04/03/2004

PARIS, March 3 (AFP) - A controversial government bill that bans the wearing of conspicuous religious insignia in state schools cleared its final hurdle with ease in the French parliament Wednesday despite loud protests inside and outside the country.

Senators of both left and right voted 276 to 20 in favour of the bill, ignoring demonstrations by angry Muslims claiming they are being discriminated against and brushing aside a recent warning from Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man who accused France of “crusader enmity”.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told senators before the vote in the upper house that the law did not aim to discriminate against religions but to “send a powerful and quick signal”.

“Our vision of secularity is not opposed to religions. Everybody has the right to express his faith as long as he respects the laws of the Republic inside the Republic’s schools.”

But he added: “We do not feel or claim to believe that all’s been settled with this bill.”

The legislation’s passage through parliament was eased after the ruling UMP party of President Jacques Chirac won support from the opposition Socialists in return for a promise to review the measure’s success after a year.

The lower house of parliament agreed to the bill just over three weeks ago.

In the Senate debate, former prime minister Pierre Mauroy, a Socialist, declared: “In France we consider that it is secularity which is best able to create for each individual the conditions of his freedom of conscience and his freedom to think and act, to practise the religion of his choice or to be atheist or agnostic.”

Nearly 70 percent of French people back the new law, according to polls, believing it upholds France’s version of secularity, which calls for a strict separation of state and religion in public institutions.

In line with recommendations from a committee set up by Chirac, the law prohibits Muslim headscarves, Jewish skull caps, large Christian crosses and other conspicuous religious ornamentation in state schools.

The ban may also extend to beards and bandanas in some cases, if they are deemed to be religious in nature.

But since the bill was announced thousands of people have marched in Paris and other cities against the headscarf ban and there has been a noisy debate in the country and led to accusations that the government is “Islamophobe.”

Protests have also sprung up in Belgium, Britain, Egypt, India, Thailand and other countries.

Last month, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, grand mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, called France’s proposed law an “infringement on human rights”.

And French anti-terrorism experts were taking seriously a warning from bin Laden’s right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri who said last week that the headscarf ban was in the same league as “the burning of villages in Afghanistan, the destruction of houses over the heads of their inhabitants in Palestine, the massacre of children and the theft of oil in Iraq.”

Those who have fought the bill’s passage are now aiming to hit back at the government through the ballot box by urging France’s estimated five million Muslims to vote against it in regional elections to take place March 21 and 28.


                                                              Subject: France news