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French National Assembly Approves Ban on Religious Symbols in Public Schools - 2004-02-10

France's National Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a plan to ban Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from French public schools. The Senate must now decide on the issue, but final approval is expected.

The late afternoon vote offered few surprises. Of the National Assembly's 577 deputies, 494 voted in favor of the legislation to ban Muslim headscarves, Jewish skull caps, Christian crosses, and other so-called conspicuous religious symbols from French public schools.

Only members of France's small Communist and Republican parties voted against the measure. A rebellious group within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party abstained from the vote.

The landslide majority was achieved after a last-minute agreement by the opposition Socialist Party to vote in favor of the bill.

The Socialists had wanted the text to be hardened to ban all visible religious symbols, rather than only those judged to be conspicuous. That tougher wording would also forbid students to wear small crosses, Muslim hands of Fatma and other less obvious signs of their faiths. But the Socialists won a smaller concession, with an agreement to review the legislation next year to see whether it is effective.

The French Senate is expected to vote on a similar bill next month.

The religious symbols ban has the broad backing of French President Jacques Chirac and his center-right government. And since the Senate, like the National Assembly, is dominated by Mr. Chirac's UMP party, a vote in favor of the legislation is virtually assured.

That means French public school students will likely face such a ban when the next school year begins, in September. The measure would not apply to university students or to those going to private schools.

Despite strong support in the French parliament, the proposed religious symbols ban has stirred fierce criticism. Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders have protested the measure as violating freedom of religion and expression. So have members of France's tiny Sikh community, who argue wearing a turban is a mandatory part of their identity. And several foreign governments, including the United States, have expressed concern about such a ban.

But other critics argue a school symbols ban merely papers over larger problems of discrimination and marginalization facing France's sizable immigrant and minority populations.

Supporters argue that secularism is an integral part of the French national identity, and that forcing students to leave religious symbols outside their schools will help immigrant and minority groups integrate into the mainstream of French society.