French foreign minister's visit overshadowed by turban ban

France has told India it would seek to resolve "in the best possible way" the Sikh community's concerns over a French ban on the wearing of religious symbols, including Sikh turbans, in state schools.

French Foreign Minister Dominique De Villepin, on a lightning visit to New Delhi, told reporters that legislation outlawing Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols did not mean France was targeting "a particular community.

"It is just part of France's wish to separate the state from religion. We fully respect religions, cultures and traditions," he said, seeking to reach out to the Sikh community in India where the religion was born.

"We are going to seek to answer this question and resolve this issue in the best possible way to show the respect we have for the Sikh community but by also taking into account the constraints of our situation in France," he said.

The row over the ban took centre-stage during the minister's 24-hour visit in which he held talks with Indian leaders to boost ties.

A small group of Sikhs and Muslims held a noisy protest in New Delhi against the ban, hoisting placards reading, "Sikhs across the world will not tolerate the ban on turbans."

De Villepin said the French government had started a dialogue with Sikh leaders. Later he met Tarlochan Singh, chief of India's National Commission for Minorities, who is also Sikh.

The minister told Singh that France would seek "practical solutions" to the problem, a French official said.

The Sikh religion forbids male followers to cut their hair and obliges them to wear a turban. Leaders of France's Sikh community, which French officials estimate at 5,000-6,000, have said their sons would leave state schools if they could not wear the turbans.

Late Wednesday, a delegation from the Indian state of Punjab which has a large Sikh population and Sikh dignitaries submitted a petition with 100,000 signatures urging France to reconsider the ban on religious symbols.

Indian newspaper editorials also condemned the French legislation.

"There is an attitude problem that refuses to recognise and accept the changing nature of French society that now has a fair mix of different religions and races wanting to assert themselves," the Asian Age said.

"The French are clearly fighting a losing battle."

De Villepin's visit came on the heels Tuesday of passage by France's lower house of parliament of the bill banning religious symbols in schools despite fierce opposition from its large Muslim population and criticism from abroad.

The measure, drafted in response to a perceived rise in religious radicalism among France's estimated five million Muslims, has enjoyed strong popular support in France and now goes to the upper house where it is expected to receive easy passage in time for the start of the new school year.

De Villepin also said he had talked to India about a pending two-billion-euro (2.5-billion-dollar) French-Indian submarine deal and aircraft sales worth 2.1 billion-dollars to India's state-run airlines.

"I have had very fruitful discussions with the Indian government and Mr Sinha on the sales," he said.

"France has not lost out (in sales) to other countries," added External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha at the news conference.

The French are known to be unhappy that the Indian government has postponed a key meeting to consider a 2.1-billion-dollar plan by state-run domestic carrier Indian Airlines to buy 43 new Airbus planes that has been hanging fire since early 2002.

Industry officials have said New Delhi is under strong pressure from Washington to scrap the planned deal with the European aircraft maker and choose its Seattle-based rival, Boeing Co, instead.

The deal is unlikely to get the green light until India's national elections are over sometime in May and a new government assumes power.