France Turns to Tough Policy on Students' Religious Garb

To enforce its new law banning religious symbols from public schools, the Ministry of National Education has decided to get tough.

This week it held formal disciplinary hearings and began expelling students who violated the law. The goal was to get rid of those defined as hopeless cases before the 10-day All Saints school vacation that ends with a national holiday honoring all of Catholicism's saints.

The French government sees no contradiction or irony here.

Nine female Muslim students who have refused to remove their Islamic head coverings have been thrown out of schools across France. After the All Saints break, dozens of cases that are pending will be reviewed.

"The phase of dialogue and consultation is over," said an official at the ministry, who refused to allow her name to be used. "It was an unbearable situation for the teachers and the pupils. It was a crazy situation. The law has to be respected at some point."

Since school started a month ago, students who have refused to remove what school administrators define as conspicuous religious symbols have been quarantined in study halls or libraries and not allowed to attend class.

The banned symbols include anything that can be construed as an Islamic veil (head scarf, bandanna, beret), a Jewish skullcap, a large Christian cross and a Sikh turban.

Officially the law is aimed at enforcing France's republican ideal of secularism. Unofficially it is aimed at stopping female Muslim public school students from swathing themselves in scarves or even long veils.

There have been odd, unintended consequences.

Despite the 1905 law separating church and state in France, public schools have been allowed to keep chaplains, most of them Catechism-teaching and Catholic, on their staffs as long as they were not paid by the state. In 1960 a law set up a formal process to create new chaplain posts and allowed existing ones to continue.

But this fall some teachers at the Dumont d'Urville high school in the southern city of Toulon objected to what they said was a double standard: Muslim girls had to doff their scarves, but the Rev. Antoine Galand, the school's Catholic chaplain, could wear his priestly garb.

So Father Galand was barred from the school and may return only if he removes his collar and cassock and dons a business suit.

"We regret this interpretation of secularism, because it's not what the law says," said the Rev. Charles Mallard, the priest responsible for youth instruction in the Catholic Diocese of Toulon. "But it's not worth fighting over an article of clothing, knowing that in Catholicism, 'the cowl doesn't make the monk.' "

He added that even in secular France it was considered "normal" to have Catholic chaplains in public schools.

Cennet Doganay, a 15-year-old Muslim of Turkish origin from Strasbourg, showed up on the first day of school in a large beret. The school administrator told her that the beret was a religious symbol, refused to admit her to class and advised her to take a correspondence course from home, Ms. Doganay said.

She refused. She asked her parents to help her shave off her hair, returned to school in the beret and when she was required to remove it, she revealed her bald head in protest. Since there is nothing particularly religious about baldness, she is going to school again.

"They drove me crazy and tried to brainwash me so much that I got fed up and I did it - I shaved my hair off," she said. "Now I feel alone; I feel like a monster. It's like being naked on the street."

France's Sikh community, meanwhile, challenged the new law in court after the Louise-Michel school in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny barred three male Sikh students from classes because they were wearing turbans.

The three boys were at first put into a separate room where they could not attend class and then banished from school without having the chance to defend their case at a formal school hearing, Antoine Beauquier, one of the boys' lawyers, said.

"For the moment we are in this no man's land of no law," Mr. Beauquier said. "These three kids, who are good students with no problems, have had no access to classes. The effects are terrible."

Confusing matters, he added, some Sikh boys in other schools have been allowed to attend school wearing a hairnet or a small piece of fabric on their heads.

In a letter to President Jacques Chirac nearly a year ago, the Sikh community argued that the turban should be allowed because it is a cultural, not a religious, symbol.

Under the new law, expelled students have the right to appeal to their local school boards. If they are under 16, the legal age for quitting school, they have a stark choice: they must be schooled at home or by correspondence or find a private school. France has only one Muslim high school.

In an interview with France Inter radio on Tuesday, Education Minister Fran├žois Fillon said he was pleased with the way things were going. He said that at the start of the school year there were 600 cases of students refusing to remove their religious symbols - most of them Muslim girls in scarves - but that most had agreed to do so after a "dialogue."

A number of opponents of the law criticize the "dialogue" process as nothing more than pressure to break the will of students. "It's a machine that destroys the individual in the name of a fundamentalist secularism," said Dr. Thomas Milcent, a Strasbourg physician and convert to Islam who heads a Muslim lobbying group. "Some girls have been treated with cruelty, kept in isolation for days. This is extremism."