Sikhs make mockery of French ban on the veil

Attempts by the French government to ban the wearing of headscarves by Muslim schoolgirls in state schools threaten to dissolve into confusion and farce.

A draft explanation of the law, circulated to schools, specifically bans headscarves and other "religious signs" but exempts Sikh turbans and other "traditional" forms of dress.

Teachers' unions assailed the circular yesterday as "hypocritical" and unworkable. What was to stop Muslim girls claiming that their headscarves were traditional in their communities or families, the teachers asked? "This document is unworkable in its present form. It calls for the respect of certain principles and then offers all kinds of ways of undermining them," said Patrick Gonthier, secretary-general of the Unsa education union.

The ministerial advice states, among other things, that religious bandanas are banned in schools but "non-religious" bandanas are permitted. How can anyone tell the difference, teachers said yesterday? "They are asking for trouble," one headmaster in the Oise département said.

"Everyone is going to come to school wearing a bandana." The Education Minister, François Fillon, admitted that the advice to schools was "not perfect" and might be changed after consultation. It is becoming clear, however, that the law passed in March - intended to restate the principle that state schools were strictly "secular" or non-religious - is likely to create an even greater muddle than before.

There were always doubts whether new legislation was needed, despite a series of acrimonious, local disputes between school boards and pupils on whether Muslim headscarves should be allowed in state schools. The government said that the new law was required to make it clear that religious forms of dress in the classroom contradicted the principle of "secularity" - or religious neutrality - on which the French republic was founded.

After complaints from Sikhs and other minorities, the ministry of education issued a nine-page circular this week to clarify the new, clarificatory law. Negotiations will now take place to clarify the clarification.

Teachers unions and opposition politicians said the inevitable consequence would be a flurry of deliberate challenges to the law - both sincere and mischief-making - when the new rules take effect in September.

The problem has arisen because the education ministry has bent over backwards to answer the complaints of ethnic minorities, especially France's small Sikh community, which found itself caught up in the row without being consulted. Since the Sikh turban is claimed to be customary rather than directly religious, it escapes the ban under the definition.

The circular said that the ban covered "all symbols and forms of dress which manifest an ostensible religious allegiance and which are worn to make the wearer instantly identifiable". It went on to list the Muslim headscarf, Jewish kippa and out-size crucifixes as examples of such banned symbols.

But it went on to say that the law does not extend to to "traditional forms of dress", or clothes that demonstrate attachment to a culture or a "vestimentary custom". That exemption applies even when the forms of dress are worn, in other circumstances, for religious reasons.

School boards and teachers unions said yesterday that the last sentence made a mockery of the new law.