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Head scarf ban backlash warning
Updated: 2004-02-11 08:49

Critics of a proposed ban on Muslim head scarves in French schools, which parliament votes on Tuesday, say it could encourage the Islamic radicalism the law is intended to stave off.

Opponents say the ban is discriminatory and likely to stigmatize France's 5 million-member Muslim population -- Western Europe's largest.

French leaders argue it is needed to protect the principle of secularism underpinning French society, and to counteract what they say is rising Islamic fundamentalism and a Muslim population that isn't integrating into the mainstream.

"The majority of Muslims want to practice their religion in peace and in total respect of the laws," said Lhaj-Thami Breze, president of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, the country's biggest fundamentalist grouping.

But "when you persecute, when you make fun of, when you refuse, when you don't respect beliefs, what is the consequence?" he said in a telephone interview. "The consequence is radicalization."

The government is expected to receive strong support for the bill in a vote Tuesday in the National Assembly. The measure would then go to the Senate for debate March 2-3.

The legislation would outlaw "conspicuous" religious symbols from public classrooms, including Islamic headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and big Christian crosses. It is to take effect with the new school year in September.

Sanctions for refusing to remove the banned items range from a warning to temporary suspension to expulsion from school.

Head scarves are multiplying in classrooms and starting to carry a political message, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told lawmakers in a debate on the issue last week.

"It is time for the republic to set clear, practical and operational limits," he said.

Long-running issue

However, critics warned of a possible backlash.

Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar said the proposed law would be "the beginning of the problem."

Just 20 percent of France's Muslims are "religiously minded," he said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. "But even those who do not wear the head scarf will feel offended because it is a denial of personal rights."

"Instead of fighting against Islamic radicalism, it might encourage it because of this feeling of stigmatization," said Khosrokhavar, author of "The Head Scarf and the Republic."

French authorities disagree.

French citizens, whatever their origins, are expected to melt into the mainstream, place France above their community and guarantee the secular nature of public life by keeping religion a private matter. Secularism is meant to guarantee equality for all.

France has grappled with the issue since 1989, when two girls in Creil, outside Paris, defied school officials and refused to remove their head scarves. Since then, schools have expelled scores of girls.

Chirac's governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement, has not ordered its lawmakers to vote for the bill Tuesday, but has little risk of losing. The party holds 364 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, and a bill needs 288 votes to pass.

In search of a wide margin of victory, the party agreed Thursday to a last-minute amendment by the Socialists calling for an evaluation of the law's language a year after it takes effect -- and replacing "conspicuous" with "visible" symbols if need be. The Socialists think the law would be easier to apply if it pertains to "visible" religious symbols.

The governing party also added an amendment to ensure dialogue precedes any sanction -- another Socialist suggestion.

The head of the Socialist group in the National Assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told the daily Liberation on Monday he wants his party to vote in favor of the bill, "imperfect" as it is.

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