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French National Assembly to Examine Controversial Ban of Religious Symbols - 2004-01-30

France's National Assembly begins examining controversial legislation next week to ban Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps, Christian crosses and other religious symbols from public schools. The parliament, dominated by President Jacques Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement party, is expected to pass the measure into law, but many fear it will create more problems than it is meant to solve.

The students hurrying to class at Lycee Diderot in northern Paris on a snowy afternoon are casually dressed in jeans and jackets. None appear to be wearing any obvious sign of religious affiliation.

This is what the government of President Jacques Chirac would like to make mandatory in France, proposing legislation that would ban school students from wearing anything that could be considered conspicuously religious. Twenty-year-old Diderot student, Arezki Boumansoura, chatting with friends in front of the school, is against the ban. He is a Muslim. He pulls out from under his turtleneck collar a small gold pendant inscribed with the word, Allah.

He says the pendant is not for public display. But he doesn't see why students shouldn't be allowed to wear head scarves, scull caps or any other religious object. His two friends, both Christian, nod in agreement.

Across the street, computer student Marie Pratt says she has no problem with such a ban. Still, she says, Lycee Diderot rarely has problems with students wearing religious symbols. A few girls wear headscarves, she says, but they are discreet.

The religious symbols debate among Diderot students is being echoed across France. It first centered on problems sparked by female Muslims students who refused to take off their veils in schools.

But it has since widened into larger arguments about the place of religion in France, and how the country treats its minorities. Even members of France's tiny Sikh community, whose male members wear turbans and beards, have been caught up in the fray.

Catherine Vautrin is a member of France's National Assembly, which on Tuesday begins to examine legislation to bar so-called ostentatious religious symbols from school. Like many members of the governing Union for a Popular Movement party, she approves of the bill.

She says the legislation stresses the fact that schools should be considered pillars of knowledge and neutral learning -- not places to talk about religion. France is not a country of multi-denominations, she says, but of no denominations.

Education Minister Luc Ferry suggested earlier that even fashion statements, such as wearing bandanas or beards, might be off limits in schools, since they may carry religious connotations. Other lawmakers would go further and bar any visible religious signs, including small crosses and Muslim hands of Fatma. A poll published this week found 58 percent of French agreed all visible symbols should be barred.

But there is a sizable minority of those who do not agree, and they are vocal in their protest. A number of human rights activists and foreign governments have criticized the draft legislation as violating the freedom of expression. So have many Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders in France.

Jean-Arnold de Clermont, head of the Protestant Federation in France, is among those against the school ban.

"We have no problems as Protestants with religious signs, because we have none," he said. "We may have a symbol, but we don't ask for it to be visible. But in any case, we want there to be a real possibility of expressing our faith in the schools, and that is why we are against such a law. Even on Muslim scarves. Even on crosses, and kippas [scull caps] and all the rest."

The religious symbols legislation has divided the Muslim community in France. A recent survey found that more than half of the five million Muslims living in France oppose the ban. Among those who don't are secular Muslims who argue it will protect young women whose parents force them to veil.

But even moderate religious leaders like Dalil Boubakeur, head of France's representative Muslim Council, are unhappy about the legislation.

He says that he hopes there will be room for compromise as French lawmakers discuss the draft bill. At the end, he says, Muslims will abide by French law.

But Malika Ahmed, deputy mayor of the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, warns the law could have dangerous consequences.

She says the laws will play into the hands of Muslim extremists and will further isolate second and third generation Arab Muslims who already feel they are subjected to discrimination. An ethnic Moroccan, Ms. Ahmed does not wear a head scarf, and fights against Muslims forcing women to wear one in France.

Tens of thousands of Muslims have gone into the streets to protest the legislation. Most of the demonstrations were organized by a tiny, extremist Muslim Party of France and its anti-Semitic leader Mohammed Latreche.

That worries many mainstream politicians, including members of Mr. Chirac's own party, who have expressed concern that the legislation will further polarize the French population. They warn that the far-right National Front party will exploit the controversy by stirring up fear of Muslim extremism among ordinary French.

But most analysts predict that, despite the concerns, the religious symbols ban will become law.