Smooth return to French classesas headscarf ban begins

2nd September 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 2 (AFP) - France's academic year got off to a quiet start Thursday as a controversial law banning the Islamic headscarf in state schools went into effect, with the hostage crisis in Iraq taking the heat out of the debate.

PARIS, Sept 2 (AFP) - France's academic year got off to a quiet start Thursday as a controversial law banning the Islamic headscarf in state schools went into effect, with the hostage crisis in Iraq taking the heat out of the debate.  

"The first day of school is going smoothly, the pupils have gone into their schools, everything is normal," said Hanifa Cherifi, member of an education ministry crisis team set up to monitor implementation of the "secularity law".  

Cherifi told AFP there were "no indications that students have refused to remove conspicuous religious insignia", which are prohibited under the law passed by the center-right government of President Jacques Chirac in March.  

Though the law does not single out any specific faith -- Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and Sikh turbans are banned along with headscarves -- many in France's five-million-strong Muslim community believe the hijab worn by teenage girls is the main target.  

As more than 12 million pupils attending 60,000 primary and 11,000 secondary schools returned to classrooms across France, the country waited anxiously for news of two journalists kidnapped by Islamic militants in Iraq.  

The extremists holding Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot hostage are demanding that Paris repeal the headscarf ban in schools, a threat that has sparked widespread indignation in France and fostered a sense of national unity.  

Education Minister Francois Fillon, speaking at a primary school west of Paris, said the resumption of classes was "marked by fraternity, the idea that all children are treated fairly and equally."  

"If France is a reference in terms of human rights, it's because this is a secular republic that integrates all children, whoever they are," noted Fillon, who added that the government was open to the idea of creating a bank holiday for non-Christians.  

Although some feared that girls could deliberately wear headscarves to provoke a confrontation, only a few incidents were reported early Thursday, with most girls agreeing to remove their head coverings.  

Eight high school girls wearing headscarves and bandanas came to school in Mantes-La-Jolie west of Paris but agreed to remove them once the principal explained the new rules, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.  

Two other girls in the eastern city of Strasbourg, one in a black headscarf and the other in a blue and white covering, were allowed to enter their school but the principal said they would not be able to attend classes if veiled.  

School administrators in areas with large Muslim populations like the northern suburbs of Paris, the eastern region of Alsace and the Belgian border area remained on alert, with mediators prepared to intervene in any dispute.  

But even the most outspoken critics of the headscarf law like Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan and Lhaj Thami Breze of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), close to the Muslim Brotherhood, have condemned the hostage-taking as unacceptable blackmail and are urging girls to obey the law.  

The country's officially recognized Muslim umbrella group, the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), has sent a delegation to Baghdad to help secure the release of the two journalists, who went missing on August 20.  

"The resumption of classes is a difficult moment to get through. The hostage-takers are waiting for some kind of provocation. We have to be responsible," CFCM vice-president Mohamed Bechari told Le Figaro.  

Bechari, part of the team that arrived in Baghdad on Thursday, added: "Today we have to worry about the fate of the two hostages. The political battle, a purely French one, for religious freedom will resume later on.  

"The secularity law is not a law specifically aimed at the Muslim community, and France is not at war with the Islamic faith," he added.  

Introduced as a result of a report last year which warned against the breakdown of society into racial and faith-based groups, the law was designed to reinforce the strict separation of religion and state, a basic value of modern-day France.  

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.



Subject: French news

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