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French ban on religious signs could include beards

Jan. 21, 2004 • Wednesday January 21, 2004

PARIS: France’s looming ban on religious symbols in state schools could also include beards if they are considered to be a conspicuous sign of faith, Education Minister Luc Ferry said on Tuesday.

Ferry, discussing the draft law that has prompted protests from Muslims determined to defend schoolgirls’ Islamic veils, told a National Assembly committee that the government wanted to ensure the ban was not circumvented by new religious symbols.

Pious Muslim men wear beards in obedience to the Prophet Mohammad, who is said to have instructed them to do so. Sikhs of whom there are over 5000 in the Paris area also wear beards in line with their rule against cutting their hair.

During a discussion focusing on Muslim headscarves, a communist deputy in the legal committee asked Ferry whether the ban would also apply to a high school pupil sporting a beard.

“As soon as it becomes a religious sign, it would fall under this law,” said Ferry, who originally opposed the ban but fell into line after President Jacques Chirac backed it.

Ferry explained the draft law expressly bans “signs and clothes which conspicuously manifest the religious affiliation of the pupils.” Officials have said this means it would outlaw Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

Drafters chose this wording rather than a list of what was to be banned so pupils could not bypass the law by wearing other items that clearly have a religious significance but were not expressly forbidden, he said.

France has reaped widespread criticism of the planned ban, which it says is needed to keep religious influences out of state schools.

Its five-million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe, has said it feels targeted by the ban and launched a series of demonstrations against it. Christian and Jewish religious leaders have also criticised it.

Politicians say the ban is aimed mainly at Muslim schoolgirls who, they say, are covering their heads under pressure from increasingly influential Islamist militants.

Ferry said the Muslim headscarf was “a militant sign that provokes militant countersigns”.

“I tell representatives of Islam do you want your children to fight at school?” he said. He blamed the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France in recent years on tension between Jews and Muslims and said he wanted to calm things down.

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