French MPs have today voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves and other religious apparel in public schools.
The ban, which outlaws conspicuous religious clothing and symbols in classrooms, was approved by the huge margin of 494 votes to 36.
The proposed legislation will now be passed from the National Assembly to the upper house, the Senate, for approval in March. The ban is expected to become law in time for the beginning of the 2004-05 school year in September.
Once enacted, the wearing of the Islamic hijab or headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and possibly the Sikh turban would be banned in public schools. Other religious iconography, such as large Christian crosses, would also be banned from the classroom.
Mejindarpal Kaur, director of the United Sikhs, said before the vote was cast today: “We are speechless on this issue. The fact that we are here in the 21st century looking for rights that we thought we had years ago leaves us speechless.
“The turban, like the hijab or skull cap, is something that someone uses to express their faith. It is not something they can take off, as when you enter a building. It stays with you.”
The ban does not apply to students in private schools or to French schools in other countries. The sanctions for refusing to remove conspicuous religious signs and clothing would range from a warning to temporary suspension from school to expulsion.
British religious leaders, politicians and human rights campaigners today joined forces in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade France from adopting the ban, which they said could fuel a rise in fascism if adopted elsewhere.
Abeer Pharaon, president of the Muslim Women Society, predicted the measure would deepen fears among Britain’s Muslim community, particularly as the British Government has not taken a public stand on the issue.
She said: “Despite the encouraging statements we have heard from the Government, we remain extremely concerned that this rapid spread of this legislation throughout Europe might encourage extremists and fascists to attack and insult Muslim women in the UK.
“We call on the British Government to make an official statement stating its position on the issue where multi-culture, multi-faith and multi-ethnicity are affirmed as characteristics of British society which we hold dear and treasure.”
Ken Livingstone, the London Mayor, said: “President Jacques Chirac is playing a terribly, terribly dangerous game in the same way that many politicians felt they could pander to Hitler in the 20s.
“The only way to defeat Fascism in Europe is to stand against every demand they make. It is an anti-Muslim measure and will stir up anti-Muslim pressure.”
The Bill received far more votes than the 288 needed in the National Assembly to pass the bill – a measure of how popular the move is in France, demonstrated in repeated public opinion polls.
French leaders hope the law will quell the debate over headscarves that has divided France since 1989, when two young girls were expelled from their school in Creil, outside Paris, for wearing the items. Scores more students have been expelled since.
The Government argues that a law is needed to protect the secular tradition of the French state, as well as to ward off a perceived rise in Islamic fundamentalism.