French Cabinet Adopts Head Scarf Ban

By ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press Writer

PARIS - Despite protests at home and abroad, the French government took its first formal step toward banning the Muslim head scarf from public schools, adopting the measure in a Cabinet session Wednesday.

AP Photo

President Jacques Chirac defended the legislation that would outlaw conspicuous religious symbols from public schools, which some believe is discriminatory. He said France must uphold its secular foundations.

"To do nothing would be irresponsible. It would be a fault," Chirac told the closed-door Cabinet meeting, according to government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.

The bill would ban Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and other religious symbols as well as Islamic head scarves. But Chirac has made clear that it is aimed at the Muslim coverings.

In a nationally televised speech in December, Chirac called for a bill that could be passed quickly and put in force by the new school year in September. Parliamentary debate is set to begin Tuesday.

The bill stipulates that "in schools, junior high schools and high schools, signs and dress that conspicuously show the religious affiliation of students are forbidden." It would not apply to students in private schools or to French schools in other countries.

Sanctions for refusing to remove conspicuous religious signs would range from a warning to temporary suspension from school to expulsion.

Most, but not all, public schools already have guidelines forbidding head coverings. However, schools have been left to decide themselves whether to take action against those who flout the rules.

The draft law has drawn criticism from Muslims around the world, and opponents fear it could trigger a backlash in France's huge Muslim community.

Some lawmakers have already said they would abstain or oppose the bill in the scheduled Feb. 10 lower house vote. Among them are centrist allies of Chirac.

Even Chirac's party, the conservative Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, appeared to lean toward amending the bill.

Jacques Barrot, UMP leader in the National Assembly, said Wednesday that the text should emphasize that students would be allowed to appeal the decisions.

"It's not firstly a law of interdiction. It's a law of dissuasion," Barrot said.

Despite dissent, the bill is all but assured passage. Chirac's party holds 364 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, and a bill needs only 288 votes to pass.

Some 10,000 people, mostly Muslims, marched through Paris on Jan. 17 to protest the proposed law. A similar number of protesters marched in countries around the world.

In Pakistan on Wednesday, about 70 women belonging to the radical Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami protested in front of the French Embassy in Islamabad.

Echoing a complaint heard in France, party leader Samia Raheel Qazi said the law amounted to a "clear-cut violation of basic human rights."

However, Chirac said France has a duty to protect French values, notably the constitutional principle of secularism that underpins French society.

France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, estimated at some 5 million, and there is growing concern that Muslims are not integrating. The concern has been magnified by fears of a rise in Muslim fundamentalism.

Not acting would mean "leaving teachers and school principals alone in the face of growing difficulties," spokesman Cope quoted Chirac as saying. The legislation "lays down a clear principle."

Chirac evoked fears of what the French call "communautarisme" — minorities and ethnic groups living apart from mainstream society. France must do something so it does not "leave open the dangerous path," Chirac said.

The legislation culminates 15 years of often bitter debate over the wearing of Islamic head scarves in school.