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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 19:30 GMT
Sikhs protest against French ban
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

Sikhs, some holding the French flag, demonstrate in Paris
The government apparently did not take Sikhs into account
Several hundred Sikhs from across Europe have protested in Paris against a proposed law which would ban religious symbols from French schools.

France's Sikh community of about 6,000 is outraged that they were not consulted when the law was drawn up.

The turban worn by all Sikh males would be barred by the law, which is due to be introduced in parliament next week.

"The turban is our religious symbol and we can't put it off for any kind of law," accountant Gursev Singh said.

"We understand the secularism and what the French Government is talking about and we want to show them that they should understand our situation, that this is our religious right, our religious symbol," he said.

Some 2-3,000 Sikhs, the men all in turbans, marched from the Place de la Republique, the starting point for Paris street protests for the last century.

They came from all over Europe, with a big contingent from the UK.

A Sikh member of the Indian parliament flew in specially to show his solidarity.

Discreet community

The Sikh community of France is small and discreet - so discreet that when the law on religious signs was being drawn up the education ministry did not even know it existed, hence the need for this display of opposition.

Talks are underway between the Sikh community and the French Government to find a way out of the impasse, but it is hard to see what form a compromise would take.

A proposal from Education Minister Luke Ferry that Sikh schoolboys wear a transparent hair net is not taken seriously.

The Sikhs have become the unintended target of a law aimed at containing what was seen as a rise in Islamic radicalism and the growing number of Muslim girls wearing the headscarf.

The fate of the turban, a problem which a few weeks ago no one had even thought of, reveals what a minefield the French Government has wandered into.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Caroline Wyatt reports from Paris
"Sikhs here believe the new law will be bitterly divisive"



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