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Chirac expected to ban Muslim veil in French school
( 2003-12-17 16:27) (Agencies)

French President Jacques Chirac is expected to announce a ban on Muslim veils in state schools in a speech on Wednesday after years of controversy over religion in public life and office.

Showing the move could be politically popular three months from regional elections, an opinion poll being published in Le Parisien newspaper showed 69 percent in favour of ridding the country's mostly state-run schools of religious symbols.

Race relations are in the spotlight with young Muslims of North African origin being blamed for a rise in anti-Semitic violence in poor suburbs. Analysts link the phenomenon to anger over Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

"We must give public servants the legal means to enforce the rules," Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said earlier this week. He met Chirac on Tuesday evening to discuss the speech.

The televised message from the Elysee Palace, at around 4.30 p.m. (1530 GMT) comes as the far-right National Front threatens to exploit Chirac's recent slide in the polls and pull off a repeat of its shock gains in the 2002 presidential election.

The contents of the speech have been kept under wraps but allies have dropped hints Chirac will follow the guidance of an official report last week that proposed a ban on Muslim veils and other religious symbols.

Schools now individually to decide how to deal with people whose veils, skullcaps or crosses contravene secular principles.

Decisions to suspend or expel pupils for wearing the Muslim veil have sparked angry debates for some time.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has appealed to Chirac not to proceed with a law it said would victimise the country's five million Muslims.

Chirac looks ready to ignore that appeal, and there are some signs he will reject the report's call to create new holidays to respect holy days of Islam and other minority faiths after the idea was rubbished by top members of his UMP party.

Chirac's poll ratings shot to record highs as the French applauded his opposition to the Iraq war. In recent weeks they have fallen amid criticism of his economic reform course and failure to curb unemployment of about 10 percent and rising.

A survey by pollster Louis Harris this week put his support at 45 percent, down two points on last month. Raffarin, who is in charge of the day-to-day running of government, saw his score mired at 33 percent, the lowest since his appointment.

March's regional elections are seen as a key mid-term test of Chirac's second presidency term and his government.

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