PARIS – Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe on Wednesday urged a “massive vote” of approval for a bill that would ban Islamic head scarves in public schools, as Muslims opposed to the measure protested outside the National Assembly.
Women in head scarves and other opponents marched to protest the “law on secularism” — a move seen by supporters as key to maintaining France’s cherished separation of church and state.
A woman draped from head to toe in a French flag held a sign reading: “I do what I want with my hair,” while one of the rally organizers warned the bill would divide France into two camps: “Them and us.”
Speaking on the second day of debate on the bill, Juppe told legislators the proposed ban is neither a “law of hostility” nor a “law to combat Islam.”
“It’s not about banning the head scarf in French society. It’s about re-establishing spaces of neutrality and peace” in public schools, Juppe said.
A record number of legislators — 144 — were to address the National Assembly on the bill, which is expected to be passed next week. It would enter into force with the new school year in September.
Juppe, mayor of Bordeaux and head of President Jacques Chirac’s governing party, said strong backing would be in France’s interest.
“If our vote is massive it will, without any doubt, be the best signal of cohesion and republican determination that we can give,” he said.
Opponents — especially some Muslim groups — say the measure does not address the real issue: the failure to integrate France’s large Muslim population into the mainstream. Some contend a ban would fuel extremism and force 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.
Several hundred people, Muslims and non-Muslims, rallied Wednesday behind the National Assembly to protest the bill.
“Don’t put the problems of integration on others, on young girls,” said Monique Crinon of the group A School for Everyone, which organized the rally.
“They absolutely have the right to go to school,” she told the crowd, adding that the ban would create divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims: “Them and us.”
Juppe asserted the law is needed “to put a halt” to Muslim militancy. “It’s not paranoia to say that today we are facing a rise in political-religious fanaticism,” he said.
The Union of Islamic Organizations of France warned in a statement on its Internet site that a ban “will be perceived by many as a regression of liberties that will only feed feelings of frustration and rejection.”
The organization urged legislators to amend the bill to allow Muslim school girls to wear “discrete” head coverings.
In a last stand to block the measure, opponents planned demonstrations Saturday and Feb. 14, four days after the bill is scheduled for a vote. Up to 10,000 Muslims marched through Paris and in capitals around the world on Jan. 17.
France has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population — some 5 million — and Islam is the second religion in the mainly Roman Catholic country.