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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 21:17 GMT
President's risky move
Caroline Wyatt
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

The announcement by French President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace today came as no surprise.

This will be a popular decision, with some 70% of the French electorate saying they support a ban on religious symbols in schools - a ban aimed mainly at the Islamic headscarf.

It may be no coincidence that the issue has come to a head just a few months before regional elections which Mr Chirac's party is keen to win.

Pupil wearing headscarf
Thousands of Muslim schoolgirls in France wear headscarves
But how and why has the headscarf worn by so many Muslim women across the West become such an issue in France?

Jerome Riviere is an MP from Jacques Chirac's governing UMP party.

He say this is not about French intolerance of other religions or cultures, but about protecting the secular nature of the French state.

"Right now we have a problem with Islamists - a minority of the Muslim community in France.

"They are using [the headscarf] as a political sign and that demands a political answer to a political problem. That's why we need to have a law," he said.

Religious divide

Mr Riviere believes France is a lay country, not a religious country.

"A lay country doesn't mean a place where you cannot believe in a God," he said.

"But in order to be able to worship wherever you want, you need to accept that others are worshipping somebody else.

Jacques Chirac
Chirac: "We cannot let secularism weaken"
"Therefore, in schools, administrative offices and public offices, we should completely ban any visible religious sign and specifically the Islamist's veil," he said.

That view is not unusual in France, where many also believe the headscarf - or veil, as they prefer to call it - is demeaning to women.

Not so, reply many Muslims here, who say the entire controversy displays French intolerance towards Islam and a misunderstanding of what the headscarf means to them.

So what of the thousands of schoolgirls who will be affected by the ban when it eventually comes into force?

Teycir Ben Niser is a 17-year old pupil at a Paris secondary school.

She started wearing the headscarf or hijab earlier this year.

She says she has been humiliated already by being told to take it off on a school trip.

The hijab to me is liberty, it's emancipation, it's freedom
Teycir Ben Niser
She fears France misunderstands what the headscarf means to Muslim women.

"The hijab to me is liberty, it's emancipation, it's freedom," she said.

"Stop saying that the girls who are wearing this are submissive or manipulated. For me I am in France - a country that proclaims liberty and human rights. I don't see why we should be told to take the hijab off."

Sowing discontent?

Coming out of prayers at the main mosque in Paris today, another schoolgirl agreed with Teycir's viewpoint.

She says that far from extending liberty and equality, as President Chirac put it, the new law would take away a key human right from France's Muslim community.

"We chose to wear the veil. But they want to ban us from wearing it and that infringes on our freedom," she said.

Lila (left) and Alma Levy
Two Paris sisters have been among the high-profile expulsion cases
"I think Muslims are going to be bigger losers from this new law than any other religion here."

The new law could be passed to take effect for the start of the next school year in September 2004.

President Chirac's move may be popular with most of France, but it does carry a huge risk.

As the Catholic church and others warn, a ban is no way to make Muslims feel welcome in France.

It also carries with it the danger of radicalising French Muslims and making them turn to the very fundamentalism the president is so eager to discourage.

Should headscarves be banned in schools?
33363 Votes Cast
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