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French School Headscarf Ban Goes Smoothly - 2004-09-02


The French school year has started smoothly, despite a new ban on wearing Muslim headscarves and other overt religious symbols. French Muslim groups opposed to the ban did not attempt to defy it.

The kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq by militants demanding an end to the controversial headscarf ban has united French society. French Muslim leaders seeking to gain the journalists' release have asked young Muslim women to comply with the law and to avoid confrontation with school authorities.

In the town of Roubaix, on the border with Belgium, 16-year-old Louisa Benadda's attitude to the new French law was typical. She says that, when she arrives at school, she will remove her headscarf and place it in her bag and that it will stay there until she leaves the school grounds.

Her mother, Nacira Benadda, who unlike Louisa does normally not wear a headscarf, reflects the views of many French Muslim parents who want their children to avoid any provocation at a time when French attention is centered on the fate of the two hostages.

She says the journalists' plight has convinced Louisa to remove her headscarf at school and any other public place where she is not supposed to wear it, so as not to cause problems.

French radio reports that there was widespread compliance with the law on opening day. It says that, in some cases, girls wearing headscarves refused to take them off and went home, but that in most instances they did not defy the ban.

The law, while also banning Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and large Christian crosses, is thought to be aimed primarily at a growing sense of Islamic identity among young French Muslims. France's five million Muslims are the biggest such community in Europe.

The authorities say the ban on religious insignia is aimed at strengthening the secular nature of the French state and to guarantee peaceful coexistence among the country's various religions and communities.