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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 January, 2004, 12:49 GMT
French schools law may ban beards
Muslim protesters in Paris
The beard could be seen as a religious symbol
A proposed ban on religious symbols in French state schools could include a ban on beards, according to the French education minister.

Luc Ferry said the law, which will be debated in parliament next month, could ban headscarves, bandannas and beards if they are considered a sign of faith.

But he said Sikhs might be able to wear head coverings if they were discreet.

The proposals, backed by President Jacques Chirac, follow an official report into state secularism.

Mr Ferry, in a National Assembly legal committee hearing about the draft law, said the definition of a religious symbol in the proposed law was broad so that pupils could not bypass the law simply by deviating from a list of proscribed items.

Some Muslim girls wear bandannas to cover their hair as an alternative to the traditional headscarf, feeling it is easier to blend in to the crowd.

Asked about beards, as worn by many Muslims, Mr Ferry said: "As soon as it becomes a religious sign and the code is apparent, it would fall under this law."

Discipline

As the proposal stands at the moment, discreet religious symbols - such as a small star of David or cross worn around the neck - would be permitted.

Mr Ferry also acknowledged that Sikhs were not permitted by their religion to cut their hair, and suggested that they could wear caps.

Beards are not at stake because we have young boys and they don't have beards
Jacques Myard MP
But he said ordinary headbands, which he described as "invisible turbans", were preferable to traditional headgear.

Jacques Myard, an MP from Mr Chirac's ruling party, told the BBC that beards would not be an issue in schools.

"Beards are not at stake because we have young boys and they don't have beards," he said.

"This is more a question of discipline than any religious or political affair but I would say today that we are not facing a religious approach with the Muslims.

"We are facing a genuine political policy that tries to enforce their own Sharia Law on the civil law which is not acceptable."

He told the BBC's World Update programme that France was "absolutely tolerant to any religion".

French opposition Socialists have described the proposals as misguided and unclear.

Protests

Socialist deputy Julien Dray said: "This is putting a comic face on a very serious issue."

Centrist Francois Bayrou said the planned ban as "a whiff of oxygen for fundamentalists" who would exploit it to whip up protests.

Thousands of Muslims joined demonstrations across France against the proposed law on Saturday.

Many of France's five million Muslims see it as an attack on their religious and human rights.

But Mr Chirac's stand reflects popular opinion in France where some 70% of the electorate have said they back a ban on religious symbols in schools.

Divisions have emerged within France's Muslim community over tactics.




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