By Magali Faure and Philip Gouge
A debate over the right of Muslim girls to wear headscarves to school is raging in France, with government ministers facing allegations of racism.
The arguments date back more than a decade, but were reignited last weekend by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who insisted Muslim women remove their headscarves for identity card photographs.
He was booed by a 10,000-strong gathering of Muslims, the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UIOF).
Headscarves are out of place in school, say most French politicians
A former UIOF leader, Abdallah Ben Mansour, responded by comparing government rules on ID card photographs to Nazi laws against Jews.
"A law forced Jews to wear a yellow star, and it was overturned," he said.
"As long as the law bans the veil, we will respect it, but we will demand that it is changed."
The next day a Muslim woman driving instructor interviewed by France-2 television described the 1999 ID card ruling as "a new form of racism".
But in two schools - one in Lyon, and one near Paris - teachers have made fresh protests against pupils wearing headscarves in class.
This prompted Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to say that he was in favour of a ban.
While the Interior Ministry said there was no plan to change the law and Education Minister Luc Ferry said a ban could be unconstitutional, a range of politicians came down firmly in the anti-headscarf camp.
Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande said headscarves were "out of place in schools".
An MP from President's Chirac's party, Jacques Myard, told La Chaine Info (LCI) TV there was a "big difference between discreetly wearing a cross, a hand of Fatima or Star of David round your neck" and a headscarf which is "incompatible with the neutrality of the school and the French Republic".
A 1994 instruction from the Education Minister says the "ostentatious display of religious allegiance" in state educational institutions should be prevented.
Since then there has been a series of expulsions and readmissions of Muslim girls from schools.
Teachers in the small town of Flers even went on strike when a 12-year-old pupil refused to remove her headscarf.
Not all French Muslims are opposed to the government's line on identity cards and headscarves.
A moderate French Muslim group, the Muslim Co-ordinating Committee, defended Mr Sarkozy saying it was "shocked by the disgraceful behaviour of those who dared to defy the republic".
The rector of the Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, for his part, urged French Muslims to "live with the times" in an interview with France Inter radio.
Hanifa Cherifi, who mediates between schools and families in headscarf disputes, said most Muslim women - whether in France or elsewhere - did not wear the headscarf.
"It's a minority tradition," she told LCI TV.
The row has prompted Education Minister Luc Ferry to pledge to introduce a new law next year that would reassert secular values in state schools.
France has a 1905 law separating church and state, but Mr Ferry said existing legislation was not designed to deal with the increasing ethnic splintering of French society and what he called "the rise of racism and anti-Semitism".
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