France changes its ban on religious symbols to gain support, weaken protests

The government hoped for wide backing next week for a bill that would ban Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols in France’s public schools as opponents of the measure geared up for a new street protest against measure.

Two amendments generated by the opposition Socialists were adopted at the close of 21 hours and 30 minutes of parliamentary debate Thursday night. They included a last-minute compromise that allows a review of the law after a year to assess whether a change in language is needed.

The conservatives hope the concessions lead to wide backing in a Tuesday vote in the National Assembly to lend unequivocal legitimacy to the measure. The bill then moves to the Senate.

Critics say the planned law is discriminatory, an attack on religious freedom and likely to stigmatize France’s Muslim population, estimated at 5 million — the largest in Western Europe.

A protest march was set for Saturday to protest “Islamophobia” and the ban. Another protest is scheduled for Feb. 14.

A demonstration in Paris last month drew up to 10,000 people, with others protesting in cities around the world.

The Socialists have pushed for a ban on “visible” religious symbols in the classroom rather than “conspicuous” religious symbols as the legislation states.

The planned law also would outlaw the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses, but it is aimed at the Islamic headscarf that covers hair, ears and neck. It would take effect with the new school year in September.

The conservative party of President Jacques Chirac also accepted an amendment stressing the need for dialogue with students who break the law before they are expelled from school.

French leaders say the law is needed to protect the principle of secularism that underpins French society.

Both President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin have said that secularism is threatened by rising Islamic fundamentalism and a Muslim population looking increasingly inward rather than merging with the mainstream.

It was difficult to gauge in advance the turnout for the weekend march, organized by diverse, little known associations denouncing a “climate of racist violence and religious intolerance” and a “law of discrimination and exclusion.”

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