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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 March, 2004, 01:10 GMT
French mosque fires draw protest
A destroyed prayer room in Seynod, eastern France
Seynod's prayer room was devastated by fire
About 250 people have held a protest rally in the south-eastern French town of Annecy after two local mosques were damaged in suspected arson attacks.

One fire ravaged a mosque in the Alpine town itself while the other burned a prayer room in nearby Seynod.

French President Jacques Chirac condemned the "odious acts".

In Paris, the issue of the Islamic veil in schools resurfaced as thousands of feminists marched in support of the new state ban on religious symbols.

Kamel Kabtane of the French Council of the Muslim Faith said in Annecy that the suspected cases of arson were "not an act of vandalism... [but] an attack" and complained that no senior French politician had joined the protest.

Feminists brandish banner reading
The Paris march comes ahead of Women's Day on Monday

"We are in a pre-electoral period and many politicians did not dare come, fearing perhaps a backlash from voters," Mr Kabtane said, presumably referring to regional polls later in March.

The organisation's president, Dalil Boubakeur, warned the arson could "only worsen the sensitive religious climate" in France.

The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France also "strongly condemned" the attacks, expressing solidarity with the Muslim community.

No group has said it started the fires, and police have made no comment about the investigation. No-one was injured in either blaze.

Women's rights

Many of France's estimated five million Muslims are outraged at a new law which will ban religious symbols such as the headscarf from schools from the start of the new school year in September, in line with France's secularist tradition.

But in the French capital, about 7,000 feminists marched on Saturday in support of greater rights for women and in support of the ban on symbols.

At the same time a group of about 30 women in Islamic veils demonstrated against the law during the march which was organised by women's groups, trade unions and leftist political parties.

Prominent at the march were members of Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Slaves), a group which campaigns for the rights of women of North African origin in France which strongly opposes the headscarf.

"It's years since I demonstrated but today I am here to support those Muslim women who do not have the same rights as us," one marcher, Jeanne Chevalier, told the AFP news agency.

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