French Sikhs Oppose French Secular Plan

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By ANGELA DOLAND, Associated Press Writer

PARIS — In World War I, Sikhs point out, their ancestors wore turbans when they helped the French fight on battlefields. Now, they're enraged by a plan to ban religious attire in French classrooms — and they say that shedding their winding head coverings is unthinkable.

France's Sikh population is tiny from 5,000 to 7,000 in a nation of about 60 million. That's likely why French officials neglected them while they consulted with Muslims, Jews and Christians before drawing up proposals to maintain France's tradition of secularism, Sikhs say.

Still, it hurts.

"We're shocked by this," said Chain Singh, president of a temple in Bobigny, outside Paris. The turban is an article of faith, he says, and the idea of appearing in public without one is unthinkable.

The proposed law, expected to go before parliament next month, will ban Muslim head scarves, Jewish yarmulkes and large crosses in public schools. It's likely to go into effect for the next school year.

Much of the debate has focused on Muslim head scarves. France's Muslim population is 5 million-strong the largest in Western Europe. Already, girls have been expelled from school for refusing to shed their veils.

Few people realize Sikh children face a similar situation, said Singh, who sent a letter of protest to French President Jacques Chirac.

Parents in some schools negotiated with local officials to let their sons keep the turbans, which cover their long, unshorn hair. Sikh girls also don't cut their tresses: Some go bareheaded, others wear veils, and some also wear turbans.

When the law is passed, Singh worries, there will be no room for such negotiations.

"We can't live without our turbans," Singh said. "We even sleep wearing a little turban."

The debate over religious symbols in schools has simmered for years, but it gained momentum in July, when the president appointed a panel to study French secularism.

The panel's report, the product of six months of work, made no mention of Sikhs. One commission member said they were not considered.

"We're not in London," Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux replied, simply.

Britain, which today has a large Sikh population, has carefully taken Sikh values into account. Sikh policemen are exempt from wearing uniform caps, and Sikh motorcyclists don't have to wear helmets, according to United Sikhs, an international umbrella group.

The group is rallying Sikhs around the world to the cause with a petition online that it hopes to present to French ambassadors. There are more than 20 million Sikhs worldwide, with most living in India.

London Sikhs and Muslims plan to march against the French ban Saturday, said Mejindarpal Kaur, one of the organization's directors, saying it "is an interfaith effort."

For the march, Kaur is designing T-shirts with a black-and-white image of Sikh soldiers marching during World War I. Sikh regiments in the British colonial army fought on bloody French battlefields like the Somme.

In the photo, the soldiers wear turbans, and one waves a rippling French flag. The front of the T-shirt reads: "1914: Sikhs marching for French freedom."

The back reads: "2004: French Sikhs fight for their freedom to wear the turban."