The French foreign minister has joined with Muslim human rights groups and the Swiss government in criticizing a Swiss referendum banning the construction of new minarets attached to mosques.

Bernard Kouchner said Monday he is "scandalized" by the right-wing Swiss initiative, which nearly 58 percent of Swiss voters approved on Sunday.  Kouchner called the vote an expression of intolerance.

In Geneva, the head of leading Muslim interfaith group, the Muslim Council of Interknowing, Hafid Ourardiri, said he was surprised and saddened by the outcome.  He said he expected Muslims to appeal the ban to the European Court of Human rights. 

The Swiss government and many lawmakers say the ban violates the Swiss constitution as well as the nation's tradition of tolerance. 

However, in the Netherlands, anti-immigration politicians are calling for a similar referendum.  Right wing leaders in Austria and France say the vote affirms the Swiss national identity.

The nationalist Swiss People's Party, which backed the referendum, calls minarets symbols of political power.  It says the measure was designed to stop what it called the "further Islamization in Switzerland."

The government said Sunday it accepted the vote and that construction of new minarets will no longer be permitted. However, it also said Muslims in Switzerland retain their ability to practice their religion "alone or in community with others."  

The country's estimated 350,000 Muslims - mainly migrants from Turkey and the Balkans - make up about 4 percent of the population.

On Sunday, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the vote reflects a "widespread fear" of Islamic fundamentalism.  But she said the ban will do nothing to counter extremism. 


Some information for this report provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.