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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 February, 2004, 10:26 GMT
French headscarf ban opens rifts

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

As expected, the French parliament has voted in favour of a new law to ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools.

And despite mass protests by French Muslims in recent weeks, the ban won by a landslide.

Muslim girl under the word
Some people say the law could add to segregation in France
It will not just affect Muslim girls - large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps are also banned, as almost certainly are Sikh turbans.

After months of public debate, the vote in parliament was a brief affair.

Just five minutes for each party to sum up their position on this controversial new law.

Then, the vote itself - passed by 494 votes in favour, with just 36 against.

This means that as long as it is approved by the upper house next month, the new law will come into effect in September, banning all obvious religious symbols from schools.

President Jacques Chirac's ruling centre-right UMP party has been the driving force behind the law, which is backed by some 70% of French people.

It's a law for their well-being, they shouldn't take it as something aggressive, they shouldn't take it as a negation of what they are
Ghislaine Hudson,
UMP deputy Jerome Riviere says France's secular nature was being challenged by a small minority of hardline Islamists, and he insists the law is not about suppressing religious freedom.

"We have to give a political answer to what is a political problem," he said.

"We don't have a problem with religion in France. We have a problem with the political use by a minority of religion."

Yet others warn that far from uniting the country, this new measure will divide it more than ever.

At a small demonstration outside the National Assembly, just under 200 protesters gathered to oppose the new law. Most were young Muslim women, all wearing headscarves.


As the children of immigrants, they say, they have a dual identity - both French and Muslim - and they blame France for failing to accept its newer citizens.

"It is unjust and I am very angry, angry yes, it's not just, it's a law, a segregation," one woman told me.

Muslim girl on protest
The bill has led to widespread protests in France and beyond

Another protester said: "We are very upset especially with this law, we think this is very unfair against the Muslims. But this is not only a threat for Muslims but for whole French community."

Others here say that that feeling of rejection or alienation could even drive some young Muslims into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists.

Green party leader Noel Mamer opposed the new law.

"I think it's a very bad law, a law which takes the risk to make worse the rift between two parts of the French population," he said.

Yet teachers in France are relieved that it will no longer be up to them to arbitrate on disputes over whether Muslim pupils can wear the Islamic headscarf in class.

Personal choice

Ghislaine Hudson, a headteacher who gave evidence to the Stasi commission on secularity, says she understands the concerns surrounding the law, but believes it is the only way to ensure that all pupils are equal in the classroom.

"We have to work with our teachers, we have to work with the students, the families, we have to explain to them that this is a law for their own protection," she said.

And that's a view supported by some French Muslims, some of whom came to France partly because it is a secular state in which religious belief is kept a private matter.

Iranian-born writer Venus Kavoussian says that as an immigrant, she values and respects France's traditions.

"It's important that school stays non politic, non religious - personally I am living in France because it is a secular space," she said.

But others say this will leave some young Muslim girls with little choice but to leave French state schools and seek private education elsewhere - leading to less integration, exactly the opposite of what the French government says it intends.

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