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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 17:41 GMT
French MPs back headscarf ban
Muslim protester
There are about five million Muslims living in France
French MPs have voted by a massive majority to ban the Islamic headscarf and all other overt religious symbols from state schools.

The bill was passed by 494 votes to 36. It now goes to the upper house, the Senate, for approval.

The wearing of Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and probably Sikh turbans would also be banned.

About 70% of French people back the controversial law - and even 40% of Muslim women, according to some polls.

Most French MPs backed the bill on the grounds that it protected the secularity of the French state, by keeping religion out of the classroom.


The bill also has the guarded backing of one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam - the Grand Sheikh of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque.

Speaking after meeting French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy in Cairo in December, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi said Muslim women may ignore the obligation to wear a headscarf if the law where they lived demanded so.

But some French MPs, backed by Muslim leaders and rights groups, warn the proposed law could be seen as intolerant and undermine the integration of France's Muslims.

Already, the prospect of the new law has squandered much of the goodwill President Jacques Chirac built up in Muslim countries when he opposed the war in Iraq, says the BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris.

Saudi Arabia's top cleric has accused the proposed French law of violating the human rights it claims to be defending.

The Indian government has reportedly told France to handle the ban with "sensitivity" and the issue may well be raised during this week's visit by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

India is home to the Sikh faith, whose male followers are required to keep their long hair wrapped in a turban.


There have been protests against the law in India and amongst France's 7,000 strong Sikh community.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has also warned the French government against the ban, as has US-based advisory group, the Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Some French MPs claim young Muslim women are being forced to wear the headscarf, though the few hundred who have turned out for demonstrations against the new law say they wear it of their own free will.

Unspoken in this entire debate is the government's need to boost its own popularity, and combat a rise in support for the far-right National Front, ahead of key regional elections next month, Caroline Wyatt says.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt reports from Paris
"The legislation is popular with the wider public"

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