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Last Updated: Monday, 30 August, 2004, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
French plea for hostages' release
Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro
Georges Malbrunot disappeared more than a week ago
France's foreign minister has made an impassioned appeal to Iraqi militants to free two French journalists.

Michel Barnier, speaking in Egypt, said he had come to the Middle East to explain that France was tolerant of all religions and human rights.

The group holding the men has issued no specific threat but has given France until Monday night to lift a ban on Muslim headscarves in state schools.

The French government has vowed not to bow to the kidnappers' demands.

But the authorities in Paris are stepping up diplomatic contacts after President Jacques Chirac vowed to spare no effort to secure the freedom of Radio France Internationale correspondent Christian Chesnot, 38, and Georges Malbrunot, 41, of Le Figaro newspaper.


A top foreign ministry official, Hubert Colin de Verdiere, is in Baghdad for crisis talks, while Mr Barnier arrived in Egypt early on Monday to spearhead the case for the men's release.

These two men of goodwill have always shown their understanding for these people and their fondness for the Arab and Muslim world
French Foreign Minister
Michel Barnier

The two journalists have been based in the Middle East for many years and have written two books together about Iraq.

Mr Barnier told a news conference in Cairo that the men - said to have been heading from Baghdad to Najaf when they disappeared over a week ago - had been doing their job to explain the realities of Iraq to the outside world.

"These two men of goodwill have always shown their understanding for these people and their fondness for the Arab and Muslim world.

"I call for their release in the name of principles of humanity and respect for the human being which are at the very heart of the message of Islam and the religious practices of Muslims," Mr Barnier said.

He said he wanted to explain to Arab people the way "our constitution, our common law, guarantees to all those who live in France liberty of conscience and the freedom of religion."

The BBC's Angus Roxburgh, in Paris, says the French are pinning their hopes on the fact that their country opposed the US-led war on Iraq.


Film of the two men was broadcast on Saturday by Arabic TV al-Jazeera. It said the kidnappers wanted France to reverse the headscarf ban within 48 hours.

However the group did not say what would happen when the deadline ends on Monday night.

Al-Jazeera said the group calling itself "The Islamic Army in Iraq" described the law as "an attack on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms".

The group is the same one that reportedly killed kidnapped Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni last week.
Muslim girls wear French flags as headscarves in protest
Muslims say it is their right to wear a headscarf

The law banning religious apparel is due to take effect when the French academic year begins on Thursday.

"The law will be applied," a government spokesman in Paris said.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has added his voice to those of the many Islamic leaders calling for the journalists' release.

The head of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, told the BBC that hostage-taking was not the way to change the laws of a country.

The ban became law in March after months of acrimonious debate.

It is regarded as central to the government's policy of keeping state institutions secular, but has sparked protests at home and abroad, with many Muslims saying they feel unfairly targeted.

The law forbids religious apparel and "conspicuous" signs that show a student's religious affiliation. Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses are also forbidden.

The BBC's Angus Roxburgh
"Most people here had assumed that France was immune from attacks"


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