French Muslims Protest Rule Against Head Scarves

PARIS, Jan. 17 — The battle over the proposed law to ban religious symbols from French public schools spilled into streets on Saturday as Muslim demonstrators in capitals around the world voiced their opposition to what they say is a denial of religious freedom.

The demonstrations were largest in Paris and other cities in France, where thousands of protesters marched against an anticipated law that would ban the wearing of Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in the schools.

In an apparently well-coordinated show of solidarity with Muslims in France, protesters — from London to Baghdad — joined in.

But the demonstrations were far smaller than their Muslim organizers had predicted.

The center-right French government has taken a hard line against those opposing the proposed legislation, saying that France must uphold the republican values that harken back to the 1789 revolution and preserve the country’s secular identity.

In a speech in December announcing his recommendation for passage of a law banning religious symbols from schools, President Jacques Chirac said that if France succumbed to the demands of its religious communities, “it would lose its soul.”

On Friday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who initially opposed the law as divisive but now supports it, predicted that protests would only harden the battle lines. “If there is a protest one day, there will be a counterprotest the next,” he said.

The demonstrators in Paris sought to portray the struggle as one of loyal French citizens demanding their rights. Many waved French flags; some women among the protesters wore the red, white and blue French flag as a head covering or as a shawl. “The Marseillaise” was played.

One banner displayed in the demonstration read, “France, you are my country; Veil, you are my life.” Another said, “Down with the racist laws of the Catholics and Mr. Chirac against the Arabs and the head scarf.”

A third read, “Secular fundamentalism is a danger for the Republic.”

Many of the marching girls and women were accompanied by men with long beards who wore white skullcaps and pants cut above their ankles, signs of adherence to a strict, conservative version of Islam.

Sherazade Trabelsi, 16, a French citizen of Algerian and Tunisian origin, came with a group of mothers and daughters from Nevers in Burgundy to march. Wearing a white cotton scarf tied behind her neck, a fake Louis Vuitton scarf wrapped around her neck and high heels, she said: “I’ve worn the veil my entire school life. This law is unjust and intolerable.”

The issue has divided the Muslims of France. Dalil Boubakeur, head of the main Mosque of Paris and president of the officially sanctioned umbrella organization of Muslim groups in France, supports the ban and discouraged Muslims from participating, saying it would only aggravate their problems. “We absolutely do not want confrontation,” he said.

Many French feminists, including prominent Muslim women, also support the ban, arguing that the head scarf is often imposed on girls by their fathers and brothers and that the Koranic verse discussing veiling is open to interpretation.

But the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which preaches a strict, conservative interpretation of Islam and is also part of the French council, urged Muslims to demonstrate peacefully to show that “the Muslim population of France has faith in the republic.” Representatives of the organization distributed packets of materials that included postcards of protest that are to be sent to Mr. Chirac.

Hélène Fouquet contributed reporting for this article.

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