French MPs set to massively approve school headscarf ban Tuesday

PARIS, Feb 8 (AFP) – France’s National Assembly is poised this week to approve the controversial law banning the Islamic headscarf and other religious signs from schools, as a campaign to block it by opponents of the measure has failed to gain momentum.

The lower house of parliament will vote the bill through on Tuesday, with a massive majority predicted as a result of a deal between the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of President Jacques Chirac and the opposition Socialists (PS). Socialist deputies promised to back the bill after the UMP accepted two amendments: one allowing for a period of mediation before a pupil is punished for wearing the headscarf, and the other setting in place a mandatory review of the law after one year.

Many left-wing members of parliament want the law to be more strongly-worded and hope it can be revised if it has proved inapplicable at the end of the first school-year.

Chirac ordered the law to be drafted in December after accepting the recommendations of a committee of experts who said the separation of religion and state in France needed to be more rigorously defended. It followed reports of growing numbers of teenage girls wearing the headscarf in schools.

The text of the bill makes it illegal to wear clothes or insignia that “conspicuously” display religious affiliation. Socialist members of the National Assembly believe the word “conspicuous” is too vague and want it replaced with “visible.”

Though the law does not state what items would be considered as illegal, the committee’s recommendations listed “large” Christian crosses and Jewish skull-caps as well as the Islamic headscarf. Confusion was added when Education Minister Luc Ferry said bandanas and even beards could be banned if worn with the wrong intent.

Members of France’s 7,000-strong Sikh community have protested after learning that the turban worn by all Sikh males is also likely to be outlawed in the classroom.

Though the measure has been criticised for being unworkable and liable to inflame sentiment among France’s estimated five million inhabitants of Muslim origin, the mass movement of opposition that some predicted has so far failed to materialise.

On Wednesday only a few hundred people answered calls for a demonstration outside the National Assembly to mark the start of the debate on the law, and on Saturday a march through Paris organised by a new group called “Movement for Justice and Dignity” drew fewer than a thousand.

Some commentators said the small scale of the protests was a sign that the vast majority of French Muslims are well integrated into society and have adopted many of the secular ideas of their compatriots. Others said it showed that the opposition is badly divided and unsure how to respond.

One of the largest Muslim bodies – the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) which is close to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood – has shifted its position from outright opposition to the law to a call for an amendment to lessen its impact.

“Short of preventing the law – because sadly that it is the way we are being led by forced march – it would be wise and appreciated by the great majority of French Muslims … to amend the text to include the authorisation of a discreet head-covering,” it said in a statement.

However other organisations have promised to maintain the pressure and another rally is planned next Saturday in Paris.

“If we give way on this question, tomorrow we will be asked to give way on more fundamental matters … Muslims must not stop fighting alongside their non-Muslim compatriots to uphold the republican ideals,” said Hassan Iquioussen, a preacher with a large following among young French Muslims.

After Tuesday’s vote the bill passes before the upper house of parliament, the Senate, where the UMP also has a large majority.

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