France Awaits Headscarves Report

Muslim girls in France are set to find out if they are likely to be banned from wearing headscarves in schools.

An official commission headed by former minister Bernard Stasi will publish its findings on the issue on Thursday.

Two Paris sisters have been among the high-profile expulsion cases.

French President Jacques Chirac will then have to decide whether to follow the commission's recommendation.

The issue has proved highly divisive, after a number of high-profile cases where children have been sent home from school for wearing scarves.

Mr Stasi has consulted a wide cross-section of public opinion, including teachers, religious leaders, sociologists and politicians.

French public life has a strong secular tradition which has existed since the revolution, but the commission will now recommend whether to enshrine the plan in law.

Mr Chirac has hinted that he could back a formal ban.

Last week he said France felt "in a certain way under attack as result of the display of ostentatious religious signs, which is totally contrary to its secular tradition".

He added: "We cannot accept ostentatious signs of religious proselytism, whatever the religion."

Celebrated cases

The issue has led to a number of celebrated cases where girls have been suspended or expelled for wearing headscarves to school.

Other schools do not act against pupils who come to class wearing headscarves.

France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, with around five million people.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris says the Islamic headscarf has become the focal point of an agonised national debate in France.

It reflects many of the nation's unspoken fears about its failure to fully integrate its Muslim immigrants or to give them a purely French cultural identity, says our correspondent.

France's chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, has joined Christian churches in arguing against a ban.

"What an aberration it is to want to muzzle religion in the name of secularism," he said in a newspaper interview.

More than 60 prominent French women, including Isabelle Adjani and fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, have backed a campaign by Elle magazine to ban what they called a "visible symbol of the submission of women".

Some Muslims are also opposed to the wearing of headscarves.

German ruling

"There are young women who say I prefer to wear the veil because it's easier that way and it earns me respect," says Algerian-born author Samira Bellil.

"There are also young women who wear it because they've been indoctrinated, and these girls are told what to do and what to be by Muslim organisations. It's closer to fundamentalism than moderate Islam."

Other Muslims believe the debate has more to do with French concern over its growing Muslim population.

"There are problems adapting to this Muslim presence and to the Muslim faith. People are not at ease or happy with it, so they look for problems," says Noura Jaballah, spokeswoman for the French Muslim women's league.

"It's just some teachers who are not happy about seeing Muslim practices on show in public and who insist that the headscarf should be banished from school."

Two German states have begun moves to ban headscarves in schools, after a recent court ruling that current law meant women were free to wear them if they chose.