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French lawmakers debate ban on Islamic head scarves

France's National Assembly on Wednesday continued debate on a proposal that would ban Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols in public schools.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin opens debate Tuesday in the National Assembly in Paris on a bill banning Islamic heads scarves in public schools.Michel Euler / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With a record number of lawmakers signed up to speak, the National Assembly on Wednesday debated legislation for a second day that would ban Islamic head scarves in public schools.

Muslims opposed to the measure gathered outside the legislature to protest the “law on secularism” — a move seen by supporters as key to maintaining France’s cherished separation of church and state.

Officials said 144 of 577 lawmakers had asked for time to comment on the bill. It is expected to go to a vote on Tuesday and, if passed, take effect starting with the new school year in September.

Opponents — especially certain Muslim groups — say the proposed law does not address the real issue: France’s failure to integrate its large Muslim population into the mainstream.

Some contended the measure bears real risks to society, such as fueling extremism and forcing Muslim girls to leave school rather than take off their head coverings.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, opening the parliamentary debate Tuesday, made a forceful plea in favor of a ban on “conspicuous” religious symbols and apparel in public schools. The legislation also would ban Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

Education Minister Luc Ferry said in an interview published Wednesday in the daily Le Parisien that he does not fear a backlash if the legislation is enacted, as expected.

“The law will clarify things and be applied without difficulty,” Ferry predicted.

Muslims protest ban
Muslim militants quickly mounted a protest in front of the National Assembly as Ferry, followed by former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, addressed the chamber.

About 10,000 Muslims marched through Paris, and in capitals around the world, Jan. 17. Another street protest was set for Saturday.

The Union of Islamic Organizations of France, a large fundamentalist grouping, has asked legislators to amend the bill to allow Muslim school girls to wear something “discrete” on their heads.

The law “will be perceived by many as a regression of liberties that will only feed feelings of frustration and rejection,” said a statement on the organization’s Web site.

A ban is seen as a means of guaranteeing respect for the constitutionally guaranteed principle of secularism that underpins French society. However, Raffarin made clear that it is also a tool to try to halt a rise in Muslim fundamentalism.

With an estimated 5 million Muslims, France has the largest such population in Western Europe and Islam is the second religion in this mainly Roman Catholic country.

“Certain religious signs, and among them the Islamic head scarf, are multiplying in our schools,” Raffarin said Tuesday. “They take on a political meaning and cannot be considered as signs of personal religious adherence."

He told lawmakers that the larger issue — integration — would be addressed in other ways.