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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 23:34 GMT 00:34 UK
Hostage crisis calms headscarf row
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris correspondent

Thursday was the first day back at school for the pupils at the Lycee Jacques Brel, a college in northern Paris in a very ethnically diverse area.

At least 20% of the pupils are Muslim.

Two girls were wearing headscarves as they walked through the school gates, but they both insisted that they would respect the law and remove them once they were inside the classroom.

Headscarf protest
Little opposition was reported in France on the first day of the headscarf ban
"Taking off my headscarf doesn't bother me, we have to respect the law and secularity," one girl said.

But the other one said she believed the law was unfair.

"My parents do not agree with me - but that is my religion and that is the way I want to practice it," she said.

Once inside the classroom, all the girls at Jacques Brel complied with the new law.

One mother said her advice to her daughter was to take off the headscarf, even though both believed the law is wrong.

"I think it's a dictatorship," Shamina said.


Despite such feelings, just 70 girls across France defied the law on Thursday - a different outcome to that which many had expected.

In the face of the death threats against the two French hostages in Iraq, even radical Muslim groups in France showed solidarity with their fellow citizens in the face of the kidnappers' demands.

Herve Mariton, an MP from the governing party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), says events in Iraq have made the French pull together - in the knowledge that an imperfect democracy is still better than the rule of the gun.

"In the terrible events of these days, everybody has seen that the whole of France is united in favour of the hostages - and also in the confirmation of the law having already passed through parliament," he said.

'Not a war'

As French TV reported on Thursday evening, that solidarity may have helped the hostages.

In Iraq, a delegation of three of France's leading Muslim figures interceded on the journalists' behalf - finding themselves in the curious position of defending a law many of them had originally opposed.

Speaking in Baghdad, one of the delegation pleaded with the kidnappers.

"In the name of our community, we are telling you that France is not in a war against Islam and Muslims, and that the law on secularism... is not a declaration of war against a particular religious community," Mohammed Bechari said.

"Secularism is this space which has allowed... us to live together, religious or not, Muslim or Catholic," he added.

There are still major differences over the new law, but everyone in France is sure it is a battle that can only be fought in the country - and by democratic means.

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