French rethink ban on headscarves

(Paris, January 20)

The French government's plan to ban Islamic veils from schools came under sustained fire on Monday when MPs, shaken by a weekend of protests and violence, began asking whether the move would inflame religious tensions rather than ease them.

Most commentators feel President Jacques Chirac has invested too much in the proposed ban to back down now. But fears that the bill may alienate Muslims more than it helps integrate them have been significantly increased by marches against the ban on Saturday in more than a dozen French and foreign cities, and by Sunday's car bombing aimed at a top public official of Muslim origin.

So far, no senior member of either the ruling UMP or the Socialist opposition have questioned the wisdom of the law, which will outlaw all religious symbols from state schools from September.

"I had my reservations, and I still have them, about a law that can only pour oil on the fires of extremism," said François Bayrou, leader of the UMP's main parliamentary ally, the centrist UDF party.

Many observers fear that the fundamentalists' message - that Muslims in France are being discriminated against and denied one of their fundamental rights - could find many willing converts among an already disadvantaged Islamic community.

Edouard Balladur, head of parliament's foreign affairs committee, called the legislation "opportunistic" and risks "poisoning things irretrievably".

Several junior MPs said on Monday they saw the law as "excessive", "unnecessary" and "counter-productive".