updated 2/8/2008 6:15:44 PM ET 2008-02-08T23:15:44

Spain's opposition conservatives said Friday they would bar Islamic headscarves from public schools if they win next month's general election — another divisive proposal in a campaign suddenly focused on immigration.

The center-right Popular Party said it is against symbols that denote discrimination against women.

"We feel that what makes sense is to establish in the framework of the law that use of symbols which might amount to discrimination or a demonstration of submission of women must be avoided. Therefore, as a principle, veils should not be used in classrooms," the party's campaign coordinator Juan Costa told a news conference.

The campaign for the March 9 election had been largely dominated by worries over Spain's once-buoyant but now-cooling economy. The governing Socialists have a small but firm lead over the conservatives.

But this week the Popular Party unexpectedly shifted the spotlight to immigration. It said Wednesday that if victorious it would require immigrants to sign a legally binding document obliging them to learn Spanish and observe Spanish social customs — among other requirements — in exchange for receiving the same rights as Spanish citizens.

Requirements challenged
Human rights groups criticized this as harsh and even unconstitutional.

The Socialist government immediately said the new Islamic headscarf proposal shows the Popular Party is scornful of immigrants. Spain has a Muslim community of about 1 million people, out of a total population of 45 million.

"There is no problem with immigrants in Spain," said Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega.

"All this oozes rejection, contempt for immigrants, scornfulness," De la Vega said after the government's weekly Cabinet meeting.

Costa said schools with many Muslim children would be allowed to seek an opt-out on the ban if they request it specifically. He cited the cases of Ceuta and Melilla, two small Muslim-majority Spanish enclaves on the coast of Morocco.

But Costa dodged a reporter's question as to why a Popular Party-led government would allow students to wear Islamic headscarves in places like the enclaves — but not elsewhere in Spain — if its position is that the practice is demeaning to women no matter where it takes place.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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