`No strikes, no sit-ins' over France's scarf ban

Perhaps it is because the debate has become tangled with the fate of two French hostages in Iraq, but the clash between the French government and head scarf-wearing Muslim schoolgirls has been far milder than expected.

"There will be no strikes, no sit-ins. Everything will be done through the legal process. We will be above reproach," said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, a group that has been sharply critical of the government's new ban on wearing head scarves and other "conspicuous" symbols of religious affiliation in public schools.

Breze spoke as 12 million students across France began the first full week of the school year Monday.

According to estimates from the Ministry of Education, about 200 to 250 girls, most of them in the Alsace region near the German border, arrived at school each day wearing head scarves; all but about 100 of them removed the scarves before entering the classroom.

Those who keep their scarves are sent to separate rooms where school officials have a "dialogue" with the students and their parents.

"The first week has gone very well," said Hanifa Cherifi, the Education Ministry official who is in charge of supervising the dialogues.

"Everywhere in France, including Reunion, where there is a large Muslim community, the great majority of students are respecting the new law," she said. Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, is a French "department" or dependency.

Much of the heat went out of the head scarf debate last week when an Iraqi insurgent group responsible for kidnapping two French journalists demanded that France rescind the head scarf ban.

Whatever qualms French Muslims may have felt about the law were set aside temporarily as they rallied to the government's side.

Community leaders denounced the hostage-taking and insisted that the head scarf dispute was a "purely French" matter that must be resolved without outside interference. The French Council for the Muslim Religion, a panel created by the government last year, dispatched a delegation to Baghdad to help negotiate the hostages' freedom.

One unexpected benefit of the hostage crisis could be a new sense of French identity among the country's large and often alienated Muslim community. An estimated 5 million Muslims, mainly from North Africa, live in France.

"We are now witnessing the birth of a European Islam," said Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, research director at Cevipof, a Paris research institute.

"The hostage-taking has helped the Muslim community in France, mainly the young people, to understand that they can live in a democratic society and still be Muslims," said Costa-Lascoux, an outspoken supporter of the head scarf ban.

Muslim leaders said they hoped the community's show of solidarity with the French nation would bolster their arguments against the head scarf ban. Having proved their loyalty to France, they reasoned, why should anyone care if their daughters want to cover their heads?

"If the hostages are liberated, we think the French state will make a gesture of reconciliation to the Muslim community," said Breze, the Union of Islamic Organizations president.

Other analysts were pessimistic, suggesting the solidarity inspired by the crisis probably would be short-lived.

"The Muslim community, and especially the main Muslim organizations, showed their patriotism during this crisis," said Vincent Geisser, an analyst with the National Center for Scientific Research, a policy think tank. "But I fear that in the medium term, the hostage-taking could reinforce the public's fear of Islam and terrorism."

French officials insist that their ban on head scarves does not target Islam. They say the new law is aimed at protecting the secular nature of the French state, and that it prohibits all conspicuous displays of religious affiliation including Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and Christian crosses of "manifestly excessive size."

During the first week that the law has been in force, three Sikh students in the Paris suburb of Bobigny were sent home--apparently without a hearing--for wearing the traditional turbans of their faith. Two other students were barred from classes for wearing crosses that exceeded size limits.

But there is little serious contention that when the French government enacted the law in March, it was in response to anything other than fears about the growing influence of Muslim fundamentalists on young immigrants.

Nor does anyone believe that the confusing and hard-to-enforce law will put the matter to rest.

In the northern city of Lille, several girls tested the ban by wearing wigs over their head scarves. That passed muster, and they were allowed to attend class. Other girls wore bandannas, which the law also seems to tolerate.