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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 05:40 GMT
'Headscarf bill' mooted in France
Jean-Pierre Raffarin
Raffarin is trying to unite a divided party
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has announced plans that could in effect ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public institutions.

Mr Raffarin told a meeting of his governing UMP party on Friday that he plans to introduce a bill that would be aimed at protecting women.

He did not directly refer to the vexed issue of headscarves in schools.

Calls to ban them have increased in recent years, amid signs of growing militancy among Muslims in France.

Muslim girls wearing headscarves have been expelled from public schools - which have the authority to ban "ostentatious signs of religion".

This is not about religion, it's about lifting constraints on women
Jean-Pierre Raffarin
A motion approved by 90% of UMP delegates at Friday's meeting near Paris called for a bill that would "explicitly ban the ostentatious wearing of any political or religious sign" in public schools.

In his address to the meeting, Mr Raffarin said the bill was designed to defend secularism and protect "all women from fundamentalist pressures".

"That is the main point. This is not about religion, it's about lifting constraints on women."


The issue has not only pitted France's secular political establishment against many Muslims - it has also divided the UMP itself.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Sarkozy is concerned about a Muslim backlash
The party's chairman, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, has called for a tough law on religious signs in public schools.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has long opposed such a law, arguing that any ban would increase, rather than reduce, militancy among Muslims.

During Friday's debate he appeared to have given some ground.

"If we can agree on a bill that in one way or another said: We do not want ostentatious religious signs in state schools, government offices or public hospitals - then I agree."

However analysts said it was unclear how much Mr Juppe and Mr Sarkozy had been reconciled.

Mr Sarkozy also reaffirmed his opposition to an explicit banning of all religious signs.

The office of the prime minister told the daily Le Monde that Mr Raffarin was speaking as head of the parliamentary majority, and that his address did not constitute a "government decision".

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20 Dec 02  |  Europe

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