Sikhs Turbaned Kids Face Dilemma in France

The Sikhs of the Paris region are at prayer, their blue, red and gold turbans resembling a field of flowers as they sit barefoot and cross-legged around their sacred book.

But these days, many Sikhs worry that the world they embrace may reject their children and, come September, close the school door on boys wearing turbans to cover their unshorn hair.

Two months before the start of the new academic year, it remains unclear whether Sikh turbans, considered articles of faith, will be forbidden by a new law banning religious symbols in public schools.

To critics, the confusion over where the Sikhs fit into the new law reflects its folly. But the legislation has strong support in a France increasingly rattled by a potential challenge to its traditions, and it appears headed for implementation.

The Sikhs, whose faith preaches religious tolerance and universal brotherhood, feel their plight underscores what critics at home and abroad suggest is an injustice of the law — seen by some as an anachronism in today's multicultural France.

Education Minister Francois Fillon told The Associated Press in May that Sikh boys with long tresses would wear hairnets to school to meet the law's requirements.

Sikh elders were horrified, and the ministry appears to have backed off. Now there are rumblings that Paris-area Sikhs could be grouped in a single school, turbans untouched.

"Something grave is happening," said Kudrat Singh, who teaches yoga at the Sikh temple in this northeast Paris suburb. "The identity of a human being should be left to his own determination."

France's tiny Sikh community was forgotten when experts and lawmakers held marathon debates on whether to ban religious symbols in classrooms to counter what authorities say is the growing influence of Muslim fundamentalists in the nation's schools.

The law that followed, passed overwhelmingly, bans conspicuous religious signs and apparel in schools starting next year. It explicitly forbids Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and Islamic head scarves.

But the conspicuous turbans of the Sikhs — who number but 5,000 to 7,000 in all of France — slipped through the cracks. It was an oversight that some say shows just how unworkable the law is proving to be.

"A law shouldn't be passed if you can't apply it everywhere," said Jean Bauberot, member of a 20-member presidential panel that studied the state of secularism for five months and concluded that French values were under attack.

"Liberty of conscience is not a question of quantity," said Bauberot, the sole panel member who opposed passing a law.

The law will be in effect as France marks the centenary in 2005 of the official separation of church and state.

Secularism was later embedded in the constitution as a guiding principle that authorities say is now threatened by the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in public schools.

President Jacques Chirac has said secularism remains a cornerstone of French values, providing neutral ground for different religions to coexist in harmony.

Critics contend that authorities are misusing the notion to combat radical Islam and to turn the clock back to a time when France was more homogeneous.

"It's not really secularism that is at stake," said Bauberot. "This is a crisis of the French identity in the sense that France can no longer be like it was before."

A new multiracial France is emerging, with dozens of nationalities in some schools; about a tenth of France's 60 million people are Muslim. Perhaps most alarming for many French: Identity is increasingly defined by ethnicity or religion — not citizenship.

The law has triggered demonstrations in the Muslim world, in India and in London, where there are large communities of both Sikhs and Muslims.

Like many Muslim schoolgirls pressured into removing their head scarves long before the law was passed, most Sikh school boys have already cut their hair and assumed the style of the West.

For traditional Sikhs, whose religion was founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of northern India, the external appearance is sacred.

Shingara Mann Singh, a member of the committee that runs the temple, or "gurdwara," was distraught when his third and youngest son, Simranjit, was forced to cut his hair and remove his turban to enter high school. The family keeps the nearly yard-long tresses at home.

"I didn't eat for three or four days," said Mann Singh.

"We can die for France but we can't enter school," he said bitterly, adding that more than 80,000 Sikhs died fighting for France and the Allies in the two World Wars — more than 15 times as many as those now living here.

Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, author of "The Head Scarf and the Republic," said the law tries "in a mythical way" to recreate a unified society.

"In reality, you don't have this sort of unity anymore," he said.