Last-minute doubts as France debates veils

PARIS (Reuters) – Critics and some supporters of France’s plan to ban religious symbols in state schools have voiced last-minute doubts on whether the bill to be presented to parliament will succeed in stemming extremism.

The bill, to be presented to the National Assembly on Tuesday by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, looked set to pass easily, enabling France to bar Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from public classrooms.

After weeks of emotional debate linked in part to next month’s regional elections, voices from both camps questioned whether the law designed to stem a perceived wave of Islamic militancy among Muslim youths can actually do the job.

“The law is going to pass,” said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the large Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF). “We say, couldn’t it include discreet headscarves, bandannas, a hairband or a cap among the symbols that are allowed?

“This law targets Muslims, it stigmatises Islam and it will lead to exclusion,” he told Reuters. Because of this “monumental error,” he said, many girls will quit state schools and “we’ll see private (Muslim) schools sprouting like mushrooms.”

Alain Touraine, who worked on the commission that proposed the veil ban as a way to better integrate France’s five million Muslims, said the law focused too narrowly on religious signs.

“We had to say ‘stop’ — but we did not want to reduce France’s position just to saying ‘stop’,” said the sociologist, noting that the commission had made over 20 proposals to foster integration that politicians had ignored in drafting the law.

“We have to expand the law to show it is not aggressive,” he told Europe 1 radio. “We should not simply forbid things.”

The National Assembly, which will debate the bill this week and vote on February 10, seems unlikely to make any significant changes to the short text.

The main passage says: “In primary and secondary state schools, wearing signs and clothes that conspicuously display the pupil’s religious affiliation is forbidden.”

The draft law does not list which symbols are taboo, a loophole France’s 5,000 Sikhs hope will allow their children to continue wearing turbans and veils to class.

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France, which has long insisted on strict separation of church and state, has angered its Muslim minority and baffled much of the world by insisting on a ban that risks driving veiled girls from school. Private schools will not be affected.

Paris says it will foster tolerance, an urgent issue in France where Muslim youths angered by Middle East tensions have attacked Jews and Jewish property.

It worded the bill to include other religions in an effort to avoid openly targeting Islam. Leaders of all religions here — and Pope John Paul at the Vatican — have criticised it.

Rene Remond, another commission member, said politicians had twisted the broader message of the commission’s report.

“They give people the impression that we only have to vote for a law to solve the problem of integration,” he told the Paris daily Le Monde.

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